Walworth County Government Today: Making communities dementia-friendly

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Dave Bretl | February 21, 2017

There is no easy way for me to say this, but we are getting old. The aging of the baby boomer generation is going to have a significant impact on our county. It was partly for this reason that I accepted an invitation to attend training aimed at making Walworth County a more dementia- friendly community. While dementia is not considered a normal part of aging, it is more likely to afflict seniors. One in nine persons over the age of 65 suffers from the condition. That percentage increases to one in three individuals over the age of 85.

The training was held at our Health & Human Services building on February 9. The class was sponsored by the Walworth County Aging Network (WCAN) Dementia Friendly Community Initiative. Area residents Eric and Bernadette Russow have taken the initiative to organize these training sessions across the county to promote awareness of dementia and to provide strategies to assist those who may be suffering from dementia. There are at least two different versions of the class that I am aware of; the introductory session that I attended and a more in-depth “train the trainer” program.  I learned about these classes from Eric, who is a regular attendee at our Transportation Coordinating Committee meetings.  

The session that I went to was taught by Bonnie Beam-Stratz from the Alzheimer's Association. Twenty-four people attended the training representing government, businesses and churches. The class was well-organized and took about two hours.  The first order of business was to define what it means to be a dementia-friendly community. Bonnie explained that the ultimate goal of the outreach is to create a community where those individuals suffering dementia are treated with dignity and respect and are able to be part of the community, living as independently as possible.  

Bonnie spent some time explaining what dementia is and differentiating normal forgetfulness from symptoms of a more serious condition. Fortunately for me, occasionally forgetting a person's name or where I put the car keys likely falls in the forgetfulness category.  Frequently placing eggs in the cupboard and crackers in the fridge may be a sign of a more serious problem. While I have always used the terms Alzheimer's disease and dementia interchangeably, Alzheimer's is just one of a number of diseases contained under the broader category of dementia. Lewy body disease and vascular dementia are two less common types.

While much of the advice fell in the category of common sense, such as being patient with folks who may have dementia, there were a few things that I didn't know. As the condition progresses, for example, a person's field of vision decreases dramatically. A dementia-friendly business can be more accommodating by placing signs at eye level, for example, rather than suspending them from ceilings. Providing folks with a written note of what you just discussed, such as the date and room number of an upcoming meeting, might help them remember the conversation when they get home.  Restrooms can cause a great deal of anxiety when it is necessary for a spouse to provide his or her partner with assistance. A single, handicapped accessible restroom that can be locked makes a business far more accommodating to people with dementia.

At the end of the session, we were presented with certificates bearing a purple angel.  The purple angel stands for the principle that people with dementia have the absolute right to enjoy a good quality of life and continued involvement in their local community so far as they are able and willing to do so. If the Russows are successful in their mission, you will see more of these on the doors of businesses and offices in our community.

Aside from the fact that I may develop dementia or need to care for someone who is suffering from it, the demographics of our county make this a very important issue for local government. According to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), the number of seniors living in Walworth County is set to soar.  By 2040, our county's 85 and older population will more than double to 4,621 residents. If one-third of that group develops dementia, it will be critical for our county to provide programs and facilities to accommodate them.  The workers at our Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) do a great job and we have been taking steps in recent years to expand our transportation program. After attending the training, however, it is clear to me that we have more work to do. Everyone working in my office will be attending the dementia-friendly training and I am encouraging our department heads to do the same.   

The Russows have also been active in organizing a memory café at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn. A memory café is a place where individuals with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment), early-stage Alzheimer's or related dementias can go with their care partners to socialize and have fun with other people who are facing similar experiences. The café is held on the fourth Thursday of every month. New members are welcome to join the café, but they need to register first by calling (800) 272-3900.

If you are interested in scheduling dementia-friendly training for your business or organization, contact Eric Russow at (888) 475-1093.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us. 

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