Making a dementia-friendly community; FamilyMeans-led initiative moves into action phase in the Stillwater area

Jodi Christensen, an employee of Lake Elmo Bank, saw first-hand the embarrassment and frustration that can result from dementia, when her mother-in-law suffered through it.

“We would take her shopping or to a restaurant … and she’d forget what she ordered,” Christensen said. “People look at you funny … like ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

Unlike a broken arm, people can’t see the problem at a glance, and many don’t recognize the signs of dementia.

“Even in the medical community, I remember taking her to get new glasses, and the lady that was helping her pick out her glasses became very frustrated because she couldn’t answer questions,” Christensen said.

“For me it brought a real awareness for what people go through,” she added.

The experiences with her mother-in-law motivated Christensen to get involved with the recently created Dementia-Friendly Stillwater Area initiative led by the Stillwater-based nonprofit FamilyMeans.

“Right in the Stillwater area, estimates are that we have over a thousand people living with dementia in this community alone,” said Beth Wiggins, director of caregiver support and aging services at FamilyMeans, who is taking a lead role in the project. “Of course, as the population continues to age, those numbers will grow, and so we want to be prepared as a community and welcoming as a community.”

The initiative is supported by a grant from ACT on Alzheimer’s, a statewide coalition focused on creating a supportive environment for people living with Alzheimer’s and their families. So far, 32 other Minnesota communities are participating in initiatives to support that goal.

In May 2014, FamilyMeans convened a group of people from around the community to see if there was interest in such a project.

“There was a resounding ‘yes’ that we, as a community, want to be more dementia-friendly,” Wiggins said.

Over the summer, an action group began meeting monthly to assess strengths and opportunities. The area in question loosely follows the boundaries of Stillwater Area Public Schools, and the action group consists of residents and representatives from businesses, city governments, health care providers, senior residences, the hospitality industry and more. Anyone can join the action team. Christensen, an Oakdale resident who has worked at all three Lake Elmo Bank locations and currently manages the Oakdale branch, represents Lake Elmo Bank on the initiative’s action team.

In addition to assessing strengths and weaknesses of the community as related to people with dementia, the action team conducted a survey of community members to get input regarding what priorities should be.

Three priority areas emerged, Wiggins said.

One priority was improving the way community members interact with those who have dementia in order to relieve some of the embarrassment and discomfort experienced by people such as Christensen’s mother-in-law.

Another priority was training staff at a variety of institutions — from health care providers to retailers — about how to recognize and serve people with dementia. Christensen believes that not only will this benefit those dealing with dementia, but it will also benefit the participating institutions, such as Lake Elmo Bank, which has customers affected by the condition.

A third priority was making it easier to find and refer people to resources for families affected by dementia.

With these priorities defined, the group is now preparing to take specific steps toward accomplishing them.

“We will be, in 2015, working on one or two … concrete actions that this community decides are the highest priority to work on to make this an even better place for people with dementia to live,” Wiggins said.

This week the team is deciding what concrete actions it will take. Some additional grant money should be available from ACT on Alzheimer’s to support those steps.

“Depending on how bold we are as a community, we might want to find additional funding,” Wiggins said.

Although community-wide changes may sound challenging, Wiggins is optimistic.

“It will be our job as an action team … to generate the enthusiasm needed to make that a reality,” Wiggins said. “The community has already stepped up and become involved, stayed engaged over these months.”

Christensen agreed.

“The first couple meetings I went to I thought, ‘Boy, this is a daunting task,’” shes said. “Then it started coming together. … We found out there were a lot of people in the community that were interested in this.”

“This is a very caring community,” Wiggins said. “People just need to learn how to put that care into action in this context.”

For more information on the initiative or to get involved, contact Beth Wiggins at [email protected] or 651-439-4840.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]