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Demystifying dementia: Initiative brings awareness, training to community

Greg Spartz, a volunteer eductor with the West Central Dementia Awareness Network, gives a presentation to the Willmar Rotary Club. Anne Polta / Tribune

WILLMAR — Staff at the Willmar Public Library are used to working with all types of customers, but when an opportunity arose this past year to offer training about dementia, library director John Baken said yes.

"We do have a lot of elderly patrons and I thought that the staff would certainly benefit," he said.

It proved to be a good investment. Besides learning more about the disease itself, it helped promote understanding, Baken said.

"It enabled the staff to probably be a little more patient," he said. "It was really worthwhile."

An initiative launched a year ago by the West Central Dementia Awareness Network is working to help Kandiyohi County businesses and organizations raise the bar for interacting with people who have dementia.

The education helps front-line staff at banks, retail stores, pharmacies, churches and more become better prepared to serve a demographic that's growing rapidly, especially in rural Minnesota.

The goal is to create communities that are welcoming, respectful and capable when it comes to dementia, said Jody Loseth, lead educator.

"A dementia-friendly community is one where we have a better understanding of dementia and how to support the person with dementia in living a full and rich life," she said.

Loseth is one of six volunteers trained to lead the free Dementia Friendly @ Work education sessions to build community knowledge. Since last August they have given an average of at least one presentation a month.

West Central Dementia Awareness Network volunteer educators also provide training on the basics of dementia and early detection, as well as a Dementia Friends curriculum.

Although people often picture someone with dementia as bedridden and unable to communicate, in reality this does not usually occur until late in the disease. The majority are in the earlier to middle stages, often still living in their own home, shopping, going to church, going out to eat.

"They're living in the community," said volunteer educator Andrea Carruthers.

The awareness and training offered by the educators can help enable the public to respond appropriately and meet the needs of a population they probably are already encountering, she said. "The situation presents itself. Now what do I do? This gives you the tools."

The Dementia Friendlyfacts and figures about dementia, communication tips, practical strategies and information on available resources.

If there's enough time, participants are led through role-playing exercises — for example, what to do if a store customer seems confused about selecting an item or has trouble counting out their money at the cash register.

Dementia often is surrounded by fear and misinformation, said Mary Huesing, one of the educators trained by the awareness network.

"People have been almost hesitant to come up to me after the class and talk about it," she said.

She hopes that once the ice is broken, they become more comfortable with newfound skills they can put to use.

"It's a very gratifying class. It's very practical," she said.

"It's an eye opener for them," Carruthers agreed. "It's been very positive. They can go away with something they can actually do today."

Baken said it helped increase the library staff's confidence in interacting with patrons who might be in the earlier stages of dementia.

Most already knew that the disease is accompanied by confusion, but "it was good to be able to compartmentalize that so we have a name for it," he said.

Harvest Bank of Atwater is among a handful of local businesses that provided the training to their employees this past year.

"As a bank and like probably every business, we have had issues where we've noticed older customers failing," said Bob Meyerson, bank president. "We thought it was a good idea to alert our staff to the signs."

The training, which was provided at all the Harvest Bank branches, was helpful, he said.

As people age, it can become especially important to meet their needs so they can remain at home in their own community as long as possible, he said. "We've got a growing number of elderly people."

Although being educated and aware about dementia is simply the right thing for businesses to do, it also brings economic benefits, said awareness network volunteer Greg Spartz.

An estimated 91,000 Minnesotans — 1,800 in Kandiyohi County — live with some form of dementia and they wield consumer clout, he said. "There is a financial impact for a business that doesn't understand how to be dementia-friendly. They and their caregivers are customers and they make choices."

If a business fails to serve them well or meet their needs, "they'll look for another business that is knowledgeable and friendly," he said. "It's the bottom line."

The 18-month grant from ACT on Alzheimer's that funds Dementia Friendly @ Work, along with the rest of the training curriculum offered by the West Central Dementia Awareness Network, expired this summer. The group is searching for new funding to keep it going.

There are still many organizations and businesses, especially small businesses, that haven't been reached yet, Carruthers said. "We're just trying to spread the word," she said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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