Veronica Ives (right) cares for someone with memory loss. Last week, she picked up one of the Dementia Friendly Community initiative’s “survival kits” from Winona Friendship Center Program Coordinator Laura Hoberg (left).
by CHRIS ROGERS
Malia Fox pulled out a little card that read: “Please be patient and understanding, my companion has memory loss.” It is something people can lay on the table at a restaurant, she suggested — a low-key way to relay a simple message. Last week, one caretaker for a person with dementia reacted by asking, “Can I have 10?”
This card is a little part of the city of Winona Friendship Center’s Dementia Friendly Community initiative, a city-wide effort to make Winona more inclusive of people with memory problems. The other parts of the program are not shiny new technologies or sweeping policy changes, but relatively simple information sessions, outreach, and support groups. The goal is to make average Winonans more aware of dementia and to encourage people with memory loss and their families. The hope is that people will think twice about whether someone may be coping with memory loss before getting frustrated with them, that people suffering from dementia will know they are not alone, and that Winonans will appreciate that there is more to a person than their dementia.
“I think there’s kind of this stigma that a person with dementia can’t participate in things,” Friendship Center Program Coordinator Laura Hoberg said. Fox, the director of the Friendship Center, added that some people feel ashamed. “People are hiding in their homes. We don’t want that,” she stated. “We want you to be an active part of our community.”
Veronica Ives cares for a person with memory loss, and she took a break from a hectic schedule to pick up one of the 100 “survival kits” that Dementia Friendly Community Action Team members assembled last week. The kits are full of activities geared for people with dementia and information on dementia and local resources.
Caring for people with dementia can be hard, costly, time-consuming, and the Dementia Friendly Community initiative does not change that. However, Ives said that the Friendship Center’s awareness-building efforts are important. “It’s very helpful and normalizes it when people don’t give you that ‘what’s going on’ look,” she stated. “I think it’s already better than it was six months or a year ago because I do see people not reacting as much,” Ives continued. When she goes out to eat, waiters are less likely to automatically hand the bill to the person with dementia for whom she cares and they are less rushed to take their order, she explained.
Last month, Hoberg gave a presentation on being a dementia-friendly business to the staff of Beno’s Deli. She focused on skills for communicating with people with dementia. Sometimes gestures, body language, and tone can be very helpful, Hoberg said. “A lot of it has to do with patience, being understanding, and meeting people where they’re at,” she stated.
Beno’s Deli is the first private business in Winona to become a “Dementia Friend.” Live Well Winona, Winona State University, and various city government departments are also on the list, and any business or group can sign up to receive a presentation. Beno’s owner Corinne Loomis wanted to learn more about what she could do, and she left the information session with a greater understanding of the many different kinds of dementia that may affect people and with new ideas for a simplified, picture-based menu that could make ordering easier for people with dementia. “As a small business owner, I don’t want to feel like I’m excluding people,” she said. Loomis has a family member with dementia, too, and that gave her an appreciation of “how difficult it is, but how much easier it could be if everyone is on the same page. It’s bad enough that people are afflicted with this disease, but it’s even worse that people don’t understand the disease, that they’re people just like you and me.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in 10 American seniors currently have Alzheimer’s disease and one in three Americans will suffer from some form of dementia during their lives. Making communities more inclusive of people with dementia and more capable to care for them is necessary, Ives stated. “The aging population is going to require us to be ready,” she said.
There is one snazzy part of the Dementia Friendly Community initiative. The Friendship Center is launching a choir for people with memory loss and their caregivers called the Giving Voice Chorus. Music can be very therapeutic for people with dementia, and even when dementia limits other faculties, many people with memory loss can still sing along to their favorite songs, Fox explained. One of Fox’s own family members has memory loss. “As soon as I start singing with her, she lights up,” Fox said.
The Friendship Center plans to distribute Dementia Friendly Community survival kits to Sugar Loaf Senior Living, Catholic Charities, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, the Elder Network, and the Friendship Center. The Giving Voice Chorus meets every Thursday from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Wesley United Methodist Church. The Friendship Center is also organizing a support group called Memory Cafes. More information is available online at www.cityofwinona.com under “city services,” or by contacting the Friendship Center at 507-454-5212.