“If someone has cancer, everyone comes in to hug you.
If you have dementia, they all just scatter.”
Imagine for a moment holding a handful of coins and struggling to make change, or taking a walk in your neighborhood and becoming disoriented, or even approaching a public washroom and being unsure which door you should enter. For a growing population within the province this is not something needing imagination but is instead the reality of daily living with dementia.
The numbers are staggering. Every 24 hours 10 more people in Saskatchewan develop a dementia. As those numbers climb, the age of those being impacted is dropping. Leah Larson, volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society remarked, “If you don’t know someone with dementia you are a rarity. Absolutely the number is increasing and ages are getting younger of those showing signs of dementia.”
Dementia is not a specific disease but rather a term used to describe a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is an umbrella term encompassing many types of dementia as well as neurodegenerative conditions that progress over time. Symptoms may include memory loss, and difficulties with comprehension, problem solving, judgement or language.
It is a critical issue for Saskatchewan families, but also for communities, and that is why a local effort is underway to help make Outlook a dementia friendly community.
With roots in Japan and the United Kingdom, initiatives have taken place in countries across the globe to develop awareness of ways communities can become more supportive of people with dementia. “The path that I want to try is to establish a core committee group,” Larson indicated. “I have made presentations to Outlook Town Council as well as to the Chamber of Commerce so they are aware of the idea. I want to bring together a group that can begin the conversation toward becoming a dementia friendly community.”
What this looks like is finding ways to keep those with dementia participating as fully as possible within their community. “It’s taking simple steps,” Larson said. “It’s that understanding, that little bit of education, and removing the stigma, so that there is greater acceptance in the community. It’s helping people bridge that awkward gap.”
As part of an assessment undertaken by the Alzheimer’s Society of Saskatchewan, a statement by a caregiver summarizes the isolation that can come with dementia. “If someone has cancer, everyone comes in to hug you. If you have dementia, they all just scatter.” This is the type of thing Larson wants to change. “I hear this over and over in our caregiver’s group,” she remarked. “They see friends start to pull away because conversation isn’t as easy, or friends that did things as couples now can’t communicate like they once did, and friendships change. So they feel isolated.”
While people with dementia may experience the world differently at times, there are things communities can do to provide support such as supplying sufficient benches so someone can sit and take time if they have become disoriented; providing clear signage on buildings and bathrooms; and encouraging businesses to maintain some consistency within their floorplan so those with dementia can rely on landmarks they are familiar with.
But at the core of becoming a dementia friendly community is the desire by individuals to develop a better understanding of how to form positive interactions for everyone. “Just trying to educate oneself is a good step,” Larson said, “and an easy way to do that is to become a dementia friend.” By visiting dementiafriendlysaskatchewan.ca people can sign up to receive monthly emails that provide insight and information. “You get these little tidbits, so it’s not overwhelming like trying to read entire books on the subject. Sometimes you get these little ‘aha’ moments that can be helpful.”
This kind of information can equip citizens to feel more comfortable or even provide assistance if warranted. “We’re kind of groomed to stay out of people’s business,” Larson remarked, “but if we create more awareness people could help out if someone is lost. We need to make it okay to say, ‘Are you looking for something, or do you need help?’ So a dementia friend is someone who decides to learn more about dementia, and what they can do to be supportive of those affected by it.”
Larson is looking for people interested in being part of a core committee in town, and once that committee get established, the Alzheimer’s Society will be invited to come and make a presentation to everyone wanting to learn more including individuals, businesses and groups.
Becoming a dementia friendly community benefits everyone. Larson said, “A person with dementia is more than a diagnosis. The more we educate ourselves the better, and the benefit is that as a community we are just going to blossom.”