Minnesota smiles upon people with dementia

David Heitz

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(Photo/Submitted. Benny Heitz, pictured here with his son, David, spent the final three years of his life in a facility in Illinois. Had he lived in a Dementia Friendly America community, he may have been able to stay in his home longer.)

For people with dementia, Minnesota may be the next best thing to heaven.

That’s because 50 cities in Minnesota are “Dementia Friendly America,” or DFA communities.

DFA is 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.

The program means people with dementia may be able stay in their homes longer. Cities informed about dementia can make them safer for those living with memory problems.

Nationwide expansion of the Dementia Friendly America program came from the White House Conference on Aging several years ago.

Officials launched pilot programs in cities including Denver, Tempe, Ariz.; Santa Clara County, Calif.; Prince Georges County, Md.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and the state of West Virginia.

You can see the full list of Dementia-Friendly America communities here.

For families like mine who have or had a loved one with dementia, this is long overdue.

Elderly people with dementia face many challenges such as confusion, wandering, and an inability to manage their finances. This makes them incredibly vulnerable.

Putting your life on hold as a caregiver

Caregivers for people with dementia face 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 cannot. Caregivers often must quit their jobs.

My dad ended up in a memory care community and then a nursing home, where he died. Those years I struggled to care for him myself, and ultimately quit my job, took a huge toll on my finances and my own health.

In many cities, police, bankers, clergy, and others don’t know how to spot dementia. DFA offers them training.

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.

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,’” Vradenburg said.

The bankers knew dad was confused before I did

When it comes to just how serious the need is for something like Dementia Friendly America, consider this:

I am just one guy who happens to have a platform for writing about my dad’s dementia. But my family’s story, sadly, is not unique.

When I first moved in with Dad to provide full-time care, I noticed right away 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.

Cop suggests I go to church and pray for my dad

The first time my dad became violent and unmanageable I called my brother and asked for help. His solution was to call the police.

Dad’s diagnosis was behavioral-variant frontotemporal dementia. His behaviors could be extreme.

The officer came and showed extreme compassion. He could see what was going on. Dad was confused and I was in tears, trying to clean up the house from several messes Dad made in his rage.

The officer suggested that when dad act out, I go the Catholic Church across the street to pray. Not a bad idea, but I couldn’t leave my dad alone for even five minutes.

The police came another time when I called them unsure about what to do with dad. They told me about a local elder ombudsman, but my calls to the ombudsman never were 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.

My neighbor held her dead cat for two days

Last Thanksgiving, 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.

Monica, too, suffered from dementia. She called police and told them the cat was sick.

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 when I went next door 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 but there was no response.

The officer called and even went to the church across the street, where my neighbor attended services. He thought maybe someone at the church could coax Monica to bury the cat.

But there was no response, even after he banged on the windows.

Advocates coax neighbor to stop holding dead cat

The following Monday, people from the elder ombudsman’s office and some other elder advocates showed up at my neighbor’s home. They coaxed her into giving them the cat.

These women buried the cat in the back yard. Then they placed Monica in a facility until her son came home.

I visited my neighbor in the facility. She had no recollection of that weekend, which probably was a good thing.

Dementia Friendly America communities save caregivers a lot of grief. Training for service industry providers, first responders and others awakens a community to the challenges people with dementia face.

With knowledge comes understanding and help for people with dementia.

Two things that are terribly needed. Caregivers for people with dementia can’t do it alone.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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