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Dodge County promotes dementia-friendly communities

July 14, 2018

Joy Schmidt of the Dane County Aging & Disability Resource Center, left, presented insights into creating Dementia Friendly Communities Wednesday at the Henry Dodge Office Building in Juneau. She is shown here discussing strategies with Bonnie Beam-Stratz of the Alzheimer's Association.

JUNEAU -- Joy Schmidt was excited Wednesday to talk about how Dodge County can become a dementia-friendly community.

She was the lead speaker as the Dodge County Aging & Disability Resource Center hosted county employees, a law enforcement officer and area dementia care providers at the Henry Dodge Office Building.

Schmidt, a dementia care specialist with the Dane County Aging & Disability Resource Center, has been working to develop the Dementia Friendly Community program for Dane County for the past four years.

“It has been the best four years of my life,” she said. “It has been so much fun and we’ve had such a big impact on the lives of caregivers and people living with dementia. We’re super excited that you people want to make Dodge County dementia-friendly as well. I know that with Rob and all of your work that you’ll really be able to make an impact.”

The dementia-friendly initiative began in the United Kingdom, started by a man beset with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Norm McNamera.

“He was finding that the stores, the restaurants, the businesses, didn’t understand what he needed,” she said. “They were making light of his disease. He shared with one of the shopkeepers that he has dementia, and the shopkeeper kind of joked and said, ‘I have it too.’ I think we’ve all said that. We kind of joke about it. Well, that’s pretty offensive for someone who has that disease — losing their memories and their thinking ability. It’s an invisible disease. You can’t see that someone has it.”

Throughout Dane County, many initiatives have made cities and services more dementia-friendly. In Madison, Metro Bus personnel have undergone training to deal with such passengers, helping them make their transfers and learning to understand their needs. Libraries have created sensory bags that can be checked out to help those with dementia cope with memory loss and to entertain them as well. Memory cafes (which can be held just about anywhere) offer a pleasant and safe environment for dementia patients to relax and enjoy themselves. Signs should be big and easy to find. Carpets and walls should be plain and a calming color. Spaces should be organized and well lit.

The presentation was more about organizing the efforts, especially at the county level, and what can be done by those organizing such efforts.

Schmidt’s work started in Middleton, and it spread to other communities. In the process, however, she saw mistakes that were repeated again and again.

“People would get frustrated. They would go to the same places over and over and they say ‘No, no, no,‘” Schmidt said. “Some people would go to their chambers of commerce, and they’d say ‘No, we’re not interested.’ Then they’d throw up their hands and say ‘Well, I guess we can’t do it.’ If the chamber’s not on board, go somewhere else.”

The goal of a dementia-friendly community, according to Schmidt, is to educate, raise awareness, create trust, remove stigma and create a better shared future.

“We are hoping to have patience and people who are willing to go out of their way to help,” Schmidt said. “We’re hoping to reduce the discomfort and embarrassment when out in public, and to maintain that feeling of inclusion and belonging in your community.”

There are approximately 115,000 people living with dementia in Wisconsin, with about 2,000 of them in Dodge County. Numbers are projected to increase by 68 percent in 2035. About 70 percent of people with dementia live at home. People with Alzheimer’s can live for 10 years or longer.

“Yes, it’s a horrible disease,” Schmidt said. “It’s the worst thing ever. We can’t change the fact that the person has it, that they’re losing who they are, that they’re becoming somebody different. But we can pull together and support that person, their caregivers and their families.”

Support groups are being organized n communities throughout Dodge County. Businesses and municipalities are being trained to deal with dementia sufferers in everyday situations and organizations and individuals are learning how to cope with the disease and how to help family members and caregivers who face the challenges of caring for their loved ones with very little support from anywhere else.

Dementia-friendly efforts have spread to 18 communities thus far. The Dodge County Aging & Disability Resource Center is pushing the initiative so far in area communities, though not so much for Beaver Dam, where Beaver Dam Community Hospital has created some of its own initiatives.

Dane County has the resources to assist in the education process, and is working to provide tools to Dodge County, helping spread the Dementia Friendly Communities message.

Quarterly “train the trainer” sessions help in that mission.

“It helps build credibility and build connections,” Schmidt said. “We have the tools. We give them all the information and the resources and they can share those resources far and wide. We’ve gotten lot of people involved and it allows us to be sustainable — having local champions share the message.”

Results have been impressive, but the work will have to go on.

“We’ll never get the stamp of approval saying ‘You’re done,’” she said. “We’re going to have to keep working toward being dementia-friendly indefinitely.

“Why do we need to be a dementia-friendly community? Because there are going to be a lot of us.”

For more information on Dementia Friendly Communities and other resources, call Griesel at 920-386-3580, email rgriesel@co.dodge-wi-us or visit the Aging & Disability Resource Center online at co.dodge.wi.us.

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