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DL works to make life easier for patients

Detroit Lakes is making strides to become known as a “Dementia-friendly” community.

Ecumen of Detroit Lakes, which runs several elderly-care facilities in the city, secured a $5,800 grant from a non-profit group in Minnesota called ACT-on Alzheimer’s.

Detroit Lakes is one of eight cities throughout the state to implement the program, which they hope will make the city “dementia-friendly.

It joins Walker, Willmar, St. Louis Park, Twin Cities Jewish Community, St. Paul Neighborhoods, Forest Lake and Cambridge in this proactive approach.

Ecumen Chaplain Vick Marthaler is helping to coordinate the efforts in Detroit Lakes, which has begun with assembling an “action” team.

The team is made up of 40 different groups, individuals and agencies throughout the city, including the Alzheimer’s Association, Lutheran Social Services, the clinics and hospital, the business community, Mahube, Becker County,  area churches, family caregivers, DLCCC, Becker County Transit, law enforcement, veterans and ideally, some who are actually suffering from dementia.

The action team has already met and will now move to phase two of the project, which is to assess the needs being unmet in the community through face-to-face surveys of people suffering from a form of dementia and their caregivers.

The group will then analyze the information and come up with a way to transform Detroit Lakes into a place that people with dementia can more easily navigate and where they are better understood.

“It can be an embarrassing thing,” said Marthaler. “There are those scenarios where a lady might be arrested for shoplifting simply because she saw a necklace, thought it was pretty and put it on.”

Marthaler says there are so many unpredictable situations that happen with people suffering from dementia, and they are almost always unpleasant for everybody involved when there isn’t an understanding and an avenue to respectfully deal with it.  

“Somebody might get all their groceries rung up at the grocery store without having any money or they might forget how to write out a check, or they might call Becker County Transit for a ride but then not be there,” said Marthaler, who says people suffering from dementia usually have no sense of time.

“People will think, are you drunk? Are you on drugs?” said Marthaler, “when really, they’re just confused because of their illness, so one thing we’re talking about with law enforcement is getting ‘safe return’ bracelets so that when things happen, officers will better know what’s going on and everybody can deal with things in a dignified, protective way.”

The action team intends on working with several sectors of the community most visited by these dementia sufferers in order to teach them “best practice” and to make the community more aware of the growing problem.

And it is growing – fast.

Right now there are 88,000 people in Minnesota living with Alzheimers, and this is just one of many types of dementia people can get.

In the next 10 years, that number is expected to jump to 120,000.

The reason? According to experts, it’s simply because people are living longer, and advanced age is the biggest factor in getting the disease.

So as the problem becomes more and more common, action teams like this newly formed one in Detroit Lakes are determined to take some of the pressure off caregivers who are often on-duty 24 hours a day, and help equip the entire community with an understanding of the disease.

“And after meeting, we’ve already found that we have a gap,” said Marthaler. “We’re finding out that we do have quite a few things for people in the later stages - we’ve got home health, we’ve got memory care places, we’ve got things when it gets harder, but what do we do for those in the earlier stages who still live at home?”

That “gap” may be a pretty large one for those types of people to slip through, too, as 70 percent of people with Alzheimer’s live in their own homes and away from professional care and sometimes even away from friends or family who help them.

“People lose their jobs sometimes because no one has recognized that there is a medical reason that has affected their behavior and performance at work - a medical reason like Alzheimer’s,” said Sandy Lia, marketing director for Ecumen Detroit Lakes. “Very sad, but it happens.  It’s not always easy to pinpoint the problem.” Removing the stigma that seems to still be attached to the disease is another goal of the action team.

Lia says oftentimes people are either reluctant to admit they may be suffering from dementia or they are in denial and will assume memory or confusion issues are due to having too much on their plates.

And because that can indeed be the case, this program is also designed to help educate seniors and their families on the importance of getting a doctor’s medical diagnosis for this.

“People will think, well if it’s Alzheimer’s, what’s the point of going in if they can’t do anything for me anyway,” said Marthaler. “But what people need to first understand is that Alzheimer’s and dementia are not interchangeable terms, and there are certain forms of dementia that are treatable.”

Marthaler says there are cases where people live the rest of their lives suffering from dementia due to things like the wrong mixture of medication, depression and infection – all things that are treatable.

“So I think we just have a lot of work to do in educating people about this,” said Marthaler.

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