I’m always searching for new ideas that could improve the lives of families affected by dementia. But I was stunned to discover there are whole towns working to become dementia-friendly. A warm embrace of dementia is the opposite of what we usually find as we strive to keep our loved ones feeling loved.
Unlike the other zillion towns in America, Watertown, WI is on a quest to train its 24,000 residents in ways to support people with dementia when they come across them. This concept extends as far as teaching servers in restaurants to recognize gestures from people instead of forcing them to choose from a jumble of words like small, medium, or large. Businesses involved in the project display a purple angel on their window.
What an amazing trend! Many times I’ve been in situations where people recoil at the mere sight of a dementia patient with chaotic movements or halting speech. The situation is just too different for them and they find it easier to look away or leave in panic. At some level, I understand their fear. It takes time to get used to the company — and the needs — of someone who’s really been impaired by the disease. But I also know that for every person who has avoided our mobile chaos, there have been many waiters, cab drivers, and medical professionals who were extremely sensitive to the needs of my mother and other people like her. Those people seem to come alive in situations where they get a chance to show compassion or help out.
Before you pack up your suitcases and move to Wisconsin, you might want to do some research on other places engaged in similar efforts. An article in the January/February AARP Bulletin by Elizabeth Agnvall describes dementia sensitivity projects underway in other U.S. towns and some European countries. I love the article’s quote from Jan Zimmerman of Heritage Homes, which launched the Watertown initiative. Jan says, “We have to get rid of this fear of admitting that ‘I’ve got dementia’ or ‘My loved one has dementia’….we’re hoping to raise awareness so this is not something that hides in the closet.”
Ideas that reduce stigma move us in the right direction. But as long as a community is training its members to be kind to people with dementia, how about also educating people to be kind to caregivers? Imagine a cafe where the workers immediately notice your tired eyes and frazzled demeanor. They don’t act impatient when you don’t order right away — because you’re trying to remember if the drugstore with discount Depends and quick prescription service is open until 6:30 or 7 pm. Instead of rolling their eyes, they give you a piece of chocolate — or a wheat grass shot — and say, “It’s okay, take your time. Everything’s gonna be fine.”