A dementia-friendly town
Businesses in Watertown, Wis., are working to make life easier for a vulnerable portion of their population: those with dementia.
Unfortunately, a diagnosis of dementia often results in shame and stigma. It should not. Those diagnosed early in the progress of the disease can live productive and happy lives for years with just a little help.
For the community to help, they need to know how. Watertown is training those in retail to better serve those with dementia.
An example: Servers at restaurants often bury you with a blizzard of choices. The choices would confuse anybody, but to a dementia patient, they become impossible to sort out.
Instead, servers are taught to create simple choices and narrow them down gradually.
Rather than offering coffee, tea, hot chocolate, iced tea, lemonade or six kinds of soda, a waiter might start with, “Would you like something hot or cold?”
That cuts the choices in half. Holding up a coffee cup in one hand and a soda glass in the other is another possibility, as visual choices are easier than those filtered through language.
Watertown has opened a cafe specifically for dementia sufferers. It is full most mornings.
Such a cafe, where dementia sufferers find understanding and meet others in the same boat, fights the tendency for the afflicted to hide out at home, which is exactly the opposite of what they need.
In fact, dementia sufferers can thrive if they keep busy attending community events, or having coffee every morning with a group of friends.
One man I met flies from city to city to speak about his dementia. He is in the early stages of the disease, and his primary symptom is that he occasionally doesn’t recognize his surroundings.
Enter a smart phone. With his phone to remind him where he is and where he is going, the gentleman gets back on track.
Although he keeps notes on the podium, he didn’t use them that day. He delivered a great speech, then paused briefly as he left the podium to figure out where he was and where he was supposed to go.
For those in the early stages, dementia is a mere disability, not a death sentence.
Instead of hiding the dementia diagnosis in shame, the more people who know about it, the better. Instead of whispers and gossip, the small town can surround the dementia sufferer with love and care.
For instance, if Agnes loses her way while getting groceries, somebody who knows her diagnosis can just pick her up and take her home.
Service people can slow down a bit and not bury Agnes with options. Townspeople should realize the good they do when they pause to visit Agnes, even if some of the words get mixed up.
Alzheimer’s takes language before other abilities. It is best not to test those with dementia to see if they remember your name. Instead, talk to them in the same tone you always have, and about the same topics. Farming. The weather. The Twins.
Recognition will come. Connection will happen. But it doesn’t happen when we challenge those with dementia: “I am Eric? Remember me?”
Your name now sounds foreign, and always will — but you are not.
Sharing a magazine or a photo album creates connection. Those with advanced symptoms will ooh and ah.
However, if you leave the magazine for them to look at later, they likely lose interest. The real reason your friend enjoyed the magazine is it allowed them to connect with you without being challenged or tested.
Advanced sufferers have lost the past and future. They become more attuned to the present. The buzz of fluorescent bulbs. The rattle of the ice machine. A furnace kicking in — things the rest of us have tuned out.
Many dementia sufferers develop an uncanny ability to assess the true mood of their visitor. It becomes their mood. If you arrive agitated, they get agitated. If you come in truly happy, they can become happy.
Before we visit a dementia patient, it is best cleanse the mind of agitated thoughts, drop the need to have our name recognized, recognize and resist the temptation to test or challenge — and be ready to be delighted with unexpected, sometimes brilliant comments, or just great smiles, once the dementia sufferer recognizes that you are comfortable with them as they are.
In other words, be present, just as those with dementia are present!
The number of dementia sufferers is going to increase, mainly because medical science has eliminated so many other causes of death and decline.
A tragedy? Well, life is tragedy. Instead, let’s remember that each dementia sufferer has something to teach, if we are willing to learn.
With a little effort, every small town can become a dementia-friendly place.