What are the ways that we can create dementia-friendly environments within our communities?
This is a question that looms over our ever-aging society. The difficulty lies in defining ways to overcome the scarlet "A" of Alzheimer's, and therefore becoming friendlier towards it.
In my opinion, overcoming the stigma behind the word "Alzheimer's" involves three primary actions: education, breaking the silence and increasing awareness. Also, as with any large goal, it usually works best to start out with small efforts, and then grow from there.
This means those of you who are living in smaller communities can indeed make a difference!
Start with education
Increasing knowledge of the realities of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia—an endeavor that I've been an integral part of in my communities over the years—is a jumping-off point to making any environment more dementia-friendly.
As more and more people take small steps to educate themselves, society will become more dementia-friendly. The more educated people become, the better prepared they'll be for their own potential personal experiences with dementia, and the more likely they'll be to adopt dementia-friendly practices in their community.
Due to the rapid rise of educational opportunities that are available, people are increasingly seeking (and finding) opportunities to learn about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in non-threatening environments.
Alzheimer's support groups typically offer periodic courses in dementia care; you can check with your local Alzheimer's Association branch for information on where to find support groups in your area. If you aren't able to attend an in-person support group, online education is also an option. The website Coursera is currently offering a free class on how to care for an elder with dementia.
Breaking the silence
The hesitancy of those who are affected by dementia to speak up about their condition is one of the big reasons that the stigma surrounding cognitive impairment still exists.
What? Tell others that I—or someone I love—has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's? Won't people judge me, or treat me or my loved one differently?
If you've been personally impacted by dementia, try to let go of the fear that surrounds you and reach out to your community. Chances are, you'll not only discover a surprising amount of support, you might also be able to help others overcome their own fears about this disease.
My thought has always been that it's better to talk about the big white elephant in the room. By doing so, you'll alleviate some of the stigma that others have put on the diagnosis.
Have you already sought out educational opportunities? If so, you are a few steps ahead and can help others.
Share what you have learned with people in your community. Support you friend, neighbor or community member who has broken their silence. Be the voice that encourages others to educate themselves.
Suggestions for a dementia-friendly community
There is no exact science to being dementia-friendly community—there are simply too many factors to take into account.
However here are two simple suggestions that could work in practically any community in Americas:
- A "neighborhood watch" for the elderly: Through education and awareness of people in their service area that have been diagnosed with dementia, first responders can help implement safety precautions.One such system is a "neighborhood watch" program for the elderly. For people with a known diagnosis, community members can serve a priceless role in keeping a person who is prone to wandering or exit seeking safe.Notice how I included both the elderly and those with dementia?This is because so many aging adults live alone, far away from their families. Watching out for elderly neighbors—even those who haven't been diagnosed—and knowing the signs and averting crisis situations can help control wandering in Alzheimer's patients and is the epitome of dementia-friendly.
- A day program for people with dementia: Continued social interaction and a sense of belonging are vital in overall dementia care. A group of volunteers who are educated on proper engagement and care for dementia patients can organize and host a regular social gathering for people with cognitive impairment. I have seen successful day programs like this held weekly at churches or community centers. Seek help from your local Alzheimer's Association chapter to launch a program like this in your community.
I am confident that we will continue on the positive path of expanding dementia friendly avenues in society. For further inspiration, we can also look at the other ways different countries are making dementia care dignified.
Let's help overcome the scarlet "A"--one word, one supportive neighbor and one community program at a time.
Wishing you strength, courage and happiness with those in their days gone by.