Editor’s note: This piece originally was published July 26, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission. I will be following this story up very soon, as Dementia Friendly America has made great strides in the past couple of years.
By David Heitz
For people with dementia, Minnesota may be the next best thing to heaven.
That’s because 23 cities in Minnesota are “Dementia Friendly America” (DFA) communities, a private-sector effort that brings together first responders, churches, business owners and local governments to learn about the special needs of people with dementia. Eleven more Minnesota communities are in the process of becoming DFA communities.
The program means people with dementia can stay in their homes longer. And that’s why, to me, the nationwide expansion of the program was some of the best news coming out of the White House Conference on Aging earlier this month. Soon, these communities also will become DFA communities: Tempe, Ariz.; Santa Clara County, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Prince Georges County, Md.; and Knoxville, Tenn.; and the state of West Virginia.
For families like mine who have a loved one with dementia, this is an answered prayer.
Elderly people with dementia are faced with many well-known challenges – confusion, wandering, an inability to manage their finances, and the like. This makes them incredibly vulnerable.
Putting your life on hold as a caregiver, with little to no help
Their caregivers are faced with challenges, too. How do you care for your parent with dementia while also caring for your children? How do you hold down a job?
Many can’t. We often must quit our jobs. My dad is now in a memory care facility, and hopefully soon a nursing home, where he can get more intensive, appropriate care for his special needs. But those years I struggled to care for him myself, then ultimately quit my job, took a huge toll on my finances, my family and my own health.
In many cities, police, bankers, clergy and others don’t really know how to spot dementia.
Where is the line between “forgetful” and “dementia,” for instance?
“Becoming dementia friendly must be a priority for all of our hometowns in order to remove stigma, enable people with Alzheimer’s to come out of the shadows and engage in their communities, and help families effectively manage all that comes with the critical task of caregiving,” said George Vradenburg, founder of USAgainstAlzheimer’s, in a news release.
USAgainstAlzheimer’s worked closely with DFA to make the expansion of the initiative a reality. “This hometown Dementia Friendly America initiative sends a message to American families experiencing dementia: ‘You are not alone, we are your neighbors, we care about you, and we want to help.’”
When crisis hits, communities are not prepared
When it comes to just how serious the need is for something like Dementia Friendly America, consider this:
I am just one guy, in one town, who happens to have a platform for writing about my dad’s dementia and my experiences with it. But my family’s story, sadly, is not unique.
When I first moved in with Dad to care for him full-time, one of the first things I noticed was that he would call the bank every morning, confused about his balance. The bankers clearly knew long before I did just how bad dad’s dementia was. But how can they be expected to say anything without training? I’m sure they don’t want to be held liable for violating privacy issues either.
Second, the first time my dad became violent and unmanageable (Dad’s diagnosis is behavioral-variant frontotemporal dementia … his behaviors can be extreme), I called my brother and asked for help. My brother was not interested in helping me. Instead, he called the police, who showed up at my door.
The officer came in and showed extreme compassion. He could see what was going on – Dad was confused, I was in tears, and I was busy trying to clean up the house from several messes Dad had made in his rage. The officer wasn’t sure what to say. “What your brother called about isn’t at all what’s going on here, I can see that,” he said. He looked at me, appearing to be truly touched by the situation, and in the sincerest way suggested that when things like this happen, I go to the church across the street to pray. The church across the street has a “Perpetual Adoration” chapel, which, in theory, is open 24 hours a day. Of course, they can’t always find volunteers to staff it.
I was touched by his advice. Of course, those of us who care for people with dementia know that it gets to a point where we cannot leave our loved ones alone for even 15 minutes.
The police came again after that when I called them unsure about what to do. They told me about the local elder ombudsman, but my calls were never returned. The third time the police came my dad was taken to the emergency room, then a nursing home, and then placed in a memory-care facility, where he has been ever since.
Why My Neighbor Held Her Dead Cat for Two Days
Then, last Thanksgiving, I encountered another example of the glaring need for communities to be better equipped to handle elderly people with dementia. My next-door neighbor’s cat died. She was alone at the time, as her son, a veteran, had to go to Iowa City for cancer-related surgery. The police showed up at my door and asked if I could help my neighbor get her sick cat to the vet. I said of course, and the cop left.
But my neighbor’s cat was dead. She would not let me take the cat and bury it. She clutched it all weekend. The police came a second time, a third time. The elder ombudsman was called – no response. The officer called and even went to the church across the street – my neighbor’s church, with the chapel of perpetual adoration. No response, even after he reportedly banged on the windows for help.
Then on Monday, the elder ombudsman’s office and some other elder advocates showed up at my neighbor’s home. They coaxed her to give them the cat. These women buried the cat themselves. Then they placed her in a facility until her son came home. I rode the bus to the facility and visited my neighbor while she was there. To this day, it’s obvious she has no recollection of that weekend, which probably is a good thing. (Editor’s note: My neighbor’s son, the veteran who faced long wait times for lifesaving surgery at the VA, died shortly after this was written. His mother, sadly, died right behind him, alone, in a nursing home that ended up with all her worldly possessions to pay the bill, as well as her son’s bill. They both died in the county-owned nursing home, Hope Creek. The state of Illinois has taken so long to resolve all of this that her house still is not available for rent. The owner has gone months, now over a year, without collecting rent). A selfie of my dear neighbor Monica and I is below. She enjoyed sitting in the yard in the sunshine and was a wonderful next-door neighbor.
More support could have kept dad at home longer
In a perfect world, I may have been able to care for my dad for a longer period in his home, which he’s so incredibly proud of (see photo above) if I had more community support. As for the veteran next door? He’s still battling his own health problems while taking care of his mother. It’s just the two of them, but now they do have home-care workers coming at least three times a day, from what I can tell.
My dad is in a facility, and I’m no longer allowed to see him. You can read about that by clicking here. I’m sure he’d rather be in his house, which he purchased for a second time in 2012 after losing it in 1984 when my mother divorced him. She died of breast cancer in 1995 (you can read my column about that by clicking here), and my brother and I inherited the house and sold it. I wish there was money to have three eight-hour per day registered nurses (or even LPNs) to care for him here.
Click here to go to the Dementia Friendly America home page. It offers an insightful video of why a Dementia Friendly America is needed and more about how it works. The page is under construction and will be updated soon. The Dementia Friendly America even has been taken across the pond to the U.K.