Shirley Strysick sometimes forgets she’s met someone two hours prior or that she’s no longer a nurse.
So the 90-year-old is living in a nursing home in Watertown, about 50 miles west of Milwaukee. And lucky for her it’s in a city trying to make life easier for those with dementia.
Watertown and the state of Minnesota are helping lead the push nationally for communities to become “dementia friendly.” The Watertown effort includes a “Memory Cafe,” a monthly coffee-shop support and social group for people with dementia and their caretakers.
“Everybody was very pleasant and I never heard anyone say, `Well that’s a stupid thing’ or criticize you,” said Strysick, after attending a recent meeting.
In Minnesota, a website offers advice on how to be dementia friendly and includes downloadable documents, training videos and statistics.
The hope in Watertown is to have as many businesses as possible learn more about how to better serve people whose decline in memory or other thinking skills is affecting their everyday activities. The goal is to train 75 percent of the community’s businesses by 2016, said Jan Zimmerman, director of dementia outreach and education for The Lutheran Home Association, which runs retirement communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida.
Training sessions are tailored for specific professions. Lawyers and estate planners are asked to break up explanations into shorter, more digestible ones. Coffee shop baristas are advised to ask yes or no questions rather than rattling off menu options. Bank tellers are instructed on how to not get impatient when customers get confused while counting their money.
Businesses that participate get purple angels for their windows.
“Our goal is to help educate the community, help get rid of the stigma that is still associated with it and to create a community that those living with dementia are still a vital part of,” said Zimmerman, who spearheaded the Watertown effort in 2013 and has helped train nearby communities.
Watertown attorney Tom Levi said he deals with a lot of estate planning, so the training was especially pertinent.
“I’m interested in helping them, keeping them independent and at the same time ensuring what they are interested in is actually going to be fulfilled,” he said.
Minnesota’s dementia friendly effort started as part of a 2009 legislative mandate to generate ideas to address the problem. Olivia Mastry, founder of Collective Action Lab, guided the group that came up with a plan for Minnesota and started implementing it in 2013. Now 34 communities are involved.
Mastry has organized a “Dementia Friendly America” coalition consisting of police chiefs, city officials and representatives from the Alzheimer’s Association, nonprofit aging advocacy group Leading Age and AARP. The collaborative is using the Minnesota plan as a template for other communities.
Coalition members have met since January to identify and support communities that want to become dementia friendly. Mastry said they will launch a website in October so communities can access resources.
Denver and Tempe, Arizona, have committed to the effort, Mastry said. So have communities in Prince George’s County in Maryland, Santa Clara County in California and the state of West Virginia. The United Kingdom, Scotland and Ireland have taken on the concept, separately, she said.
Communities have different needs so how they approach the concept might vary, said Katie Smith Sloan, chief operating officer of Leading Age and chair of the coalition.
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s and the Alzheimer’s Association estimates there are 5.3 million people with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States alone costing more than $200 billion annually. The number is expected to reach 7.1 million in the next decade, significantly affecting state budgets and Medicaid, the association said.
Bernice Hinze recently started attending support group gatherings in Watertown with her husband, Del, who has had Alzheimer’s for four years.
“It lifts my spirits,” said Hinze, who takes care of Dell on her own. “It makes me have a better day for both of us.”