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Are We Dementia Friendly?

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Recently, I attended a college football game at Notre Dame. In our section, we watched as an older gentleman had trouble walking down the three steps to his seat near us. Later, we were informed this would likely be the final game he’d attend due to aging and memory issues. Luckily, the ushers knew how to help accomplish his goal.

What struck me was the reaction of the crowd surrounding him. My husband, a longtime supporter of my work in the dementia field as well as a favorite of my mother’s, immediately jumped up to help the man. Others watched, some with compassion. Some with an odd fascination. It was clear many fans in our section were not familiar with the term “dementia friendly.”

Dementia-Friendly Communities

According to Dementia Friendly America, a dementia friendly community is a “village, town, city or county that is informed, safe and respectful of individuals with the disease, their families and caregivers and provides supportive options that foster quality of life.”  In the case of the above, it was clear many fans had encountered someone with dementia, and therefore, made the day a success for the older gentleman.

During the times I escorted my mother out to restaurants, servers occasionally gave me a confused stare. Or the servers were rude if I had to excuse myself from the table to chase my mother around, like one might a toddler. As a society, we’ve come a long way from that viewpoint. Some of the change has to do with cities and other entities adopting the ways and means to bring greater awareness of the challenges of someone with dementia in their midst. The progress also has to do with us. We’ve availed ourselves of the knowledge required to ensure others in difficult accessibility situations, whether in libraries, cafes, or at social events, are comfortable. We need to be comfortable with it too. Once I began speaking up on behalf of my mother, I felt a new confidence in taking her wherever I went. Wherever I belonged, she did too.

Tips for Dementia-Friendly Surroundings

As stated above, being dementia-friendly begins with each of us in any home setting. I once left an onion on the kitchen counter during my mother’s visit. The first thing she placed in her mouth was the entire bulb. The onion possibly appeared as an apple to her. There were other dangerous food items left on the counter which included a jalapeno pepper.  I luckily grabbed the jalapeno pepper before she spotted it.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) has a few suggestions for making any home environment accommodating and dementia friendly beginning with a safety check, which should always be the first step. Here are a few other suggestions:

Consider paint color choices for walls. Blue provides a calm and cooling effect, while red ignites agitation. Contrasting colors help with vision perceptions, so one might understand when they have moved from one room to the next. Recognizing older adults often have eating challenges, the AFA also suggests using contrasting dishware color with food being served to help entice someone to eat.

Label cabinets, entryways and exits, as well as other rooms. My mother retained her ability to read and sound out words until her final months. While not always comprehending the nature of the label, the consistent presence of those words offered comfort. They were words she’d known longer than me, words she encountered all the time. She considered it her job to read them every day.

Technology continues to play a larger role in caregiving, with home video cameras, remote controls for thermostats inside one’s home, and the use of modern interactive devices to schedule reminders for meals, phone calls, or medications. Like friends of mine who tracked their teenagers via car or phone, there are user-friendly and acceptable methods in which to keep track of our loved ones when we can’t be with them.

Dementia impacts every aspect of our day-to-day lives, including attendance at a college football game. The AFA (Alzheimer’s Foundation of America) maintains a dementia-friendly home model on their website as a visual starting point to ensure our loved ones live on in safety, including when they visit our homes. Thankfully, there’s not an onion on the virtual counter to tempt a loved one into ingesting it.

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Italian Americana (forthcoming). Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.