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New regional network focuses on meeting a growing need

Lori Petersen of Olivia wears goggles Wednesday that will be part of the virtual dementia tour at Church of St. Mary in Willmar. "It should change people," Petersen said of the tour, intended to provided insight into what it's like to live with dementia. The goggles are designed to give people an idea of how someone with dementia navigates through the world. The tour is being offered Tuesday on an appointment basis. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Ask just about anyone who works with or provides services for older adults, and they'll list dementia as one of the most pervasive needs.

"It's everywhere," says Sheri Nordmeyer, program director of the Willmar Community Senior Network.

A new group, the West Central Dementia Awareness Network, hopes to increase the regional level of education, resources and support to help make life better for people with dementia and their families and caregivers. An estimated 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's, one of the most prevalent forms of dementia.

By 2030, as a wave of baby boomers crests into old age, this number is projected to rise to 7.7 million.

"None of us are going to have enough beds or enough services or enough staff or enough volunteers to meet the needs that are coming," said Mary Bauer, regional representative for the Alzheimer's Association.

That's why it's critical for communities to form networks and partnerships, she said. "It is a huge task that we have to stay ahead of the demands of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. ... The bottom line is helping these families."

The west central network was officially established in June. The partners include more than a dozen agencies and services that work with older adults.

The group is still in the early stages of organizing its priorities and trying to identify gaps or unmet needs. The members also are working to recruit participants to ensure there's broad representation, from health care and long-term care facilities to senior residence and at-home service providers.

The word is beginning to spread, Nordmeyer said. "The community is responding already."

As an introductory event, the new network has lined up a daylong series of activities Tuesday, including free memory screenings.

"We're just trying to help people become aware," said Lynn Wood, who is coordinating a new aging and community grant through Thrivent in Meeker County.

The ultimate goal, said Bauer, is to create "dementia-competent" communities where individuals with dementia can live safely and independently, where they and their families have access to high-quality services, and the medical providers are well-versed in diagnosing and managing age-related dementia.

In a dementia-competent community, the general public, from police officers to retail clerks, also should be able to recognize when someone might have dementia and to know what to do or whom to call, Bauer said.

"A big part of that is educating the general community," she said.

One of the focuses being urged by the Alzheimer's Association is earlier diagnosis of dementia. If the condition can be identified sooner, families will have a better chance of putting a plan together and lining up the services they need, Bauer said.

There's also a growing emphasis on dealing with some of the difficult behaviors, such as aggression, that can accompany dementia. When families and service providers are unprepared for the behavioral issues or don't have the resources to address them, "it's really crisis management at that point," Bauer said.

The West Central Dementia Awareness Network is one of many similar networks that are springing up around Minnesota under the leadership of the Alzheimer's Association.

How these networks function will depend partly on each community and the local needs and resources, Bauer said.

"Every community is different," she said. "Things are growing and new services are coming into communities. Each network can choose what it wants to be."

She said the west central area network is "off to a good start."

"It's a win-win for all of us. We can connect families and give them support," she said.

Anne Polta

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

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