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Changing the way we look at dementia 

Judith Graham, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Scope of symptoms. Dementia triggers a wide array of symptoms, not just memory loss.

Quality of life. People with dementia can live well, often for years.

Maintaining identity and respect. People with dementia retain a sense of self and aren't defined exclusively by this condition. (Testimonials by people with dementia are sometimes, but not always, included.)

"If we can change the way people look at dementia and talk about it, we can make a big difference in people's lives," said Philippa Tree, who spearheads a well-established Dementia Friends program in England and Wales, with about 2.3 million members, that has licensed its model to the U.S.

"It's about increasing awareness and empathy so that if you encounter someone in the community who needs some help, you have some basic skills," said Meredith Hanley, project lead for Dementia Friends USA.

William Anderson, chief of police for St. Cloud, Minn., went to a session of this kind late last year, with about 40 members of his department. One exercise -- writing down all the steps involved in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- made an especially strong impression.

 

"I'd never thought about everything that goes into something that simple: taking the peanut butter and jelly out of the cabinet, unscrewing the tops, getting a knife, spreading the sides of the bread, putting the pieces on top of each other, cutting it down the middle," Anderson said, adding that this was only a partial list.

"The point they were making was that folks with dementia might remember some of these steps but not others. At some point, they'll get distracted or forget what they were doing and go on to something else. To me, that was eye-opening; it explained a lot."

Now, Anderson thinks about "how we can make life more manageable for these folks, in simple ways." An example: The St. Cloud Police Department's building has a large vestibule, with two big glass doors. "If you have dementia, you're going to walk into that vestibule and probably turn around in circles because the doors don't have an identifier saying 'police,'" he said, adding that introducing new signage is under consideration.

Committing to a concrete action -- visiting or phoning a family member with Alzheimer's regularly, watching out for a neighbor, volunteering with a community organization or trying to make public venues easier to navigate, for instance -- is required to become a Dementia Friend, though sponsors don't check if people follow through.

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