Inevitably people grow older, and one in 10 of them will develop Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. The 5.8 million Americans who currently have this disease that progressively impairs memory, thought and language will be joined by many more as baby boomers enter their 70s.
Though many will eventually live in dementia care facilities, for years their symptoms will be mild enough to remain engaged beneficially in their communities, typically with care from family and friends. That’s challenging, and Somers Point has taken the lead in New Jersey in fostering support for those with dementia and their caregivers.
Recently the council unanimously declared Somers Point a “dementia friendly” city, the first in the state to join a growing national effort launched following a White House Conference on Aging in 2015 and modeled after a successful program in Minnesota.
With Dementia Friendly America, the U.S. joined a global movement that started in Japan a decade ago, quickly spread to Britain and now is active in 40 countries.
The goal of the movement is to encourage communities to be informed about, safe for and respectful of individuals with the disease and their caregivers. Some of the most effective approaches provide support in small ways that foster better quality of life for those dealing with dementia.
Law enforcement and first responders, for example, typically already are taught to recognize the signs of dementia and respond accordingly. That’s also important for businesses, especially banks. Patience with people having difficulty remembering encourages continued access to businesses and independence.
The dementia-friendly resolution was brought to Somers Point Council by Carolyn Peterson, marketing director for a local home-care provider, and Mary Beth Lewis of the Alzheimer’s Association. They are now Dementia Friendly America’s state leads for New Jersey.
Peterson said dementia causes someone to take much longer to process information that they hear or read, so people talking with them and even serving or helping them need patience. Dementia can also result in someone talking without thinking first, sometimes inappropriately.
She said she is working with groups that provide socialization for those with dementia and their caregivers — meeting new people and doing new things — at the Atlantic County Library in Ventnor and the Cape May County Library in Villas. Peterson and Lewis are addressing the Northfield Council this month about making that city more dementia friendly. They hope to develop their Dementia Friendly Task Force into a statewide effort.
We hope they succeed. Compassion for those with dementia is widespread. A better awareness of their needs and behaviors would make a positive, comfortable life in public possible for them and their caregivers.
And for everyone, it would help avoid awkward, even unpleasant misunderstandings.