Understanding Dementia Makes the Town More “Age Friendly”

By Michelle Moskowitz
Sentinel Correspondent

The number of Americans aged 65 and older will increase from 35 to 55 million over the next few years.  According to a 2016 Greenwich United Way Assessment, 17.5% of residents are over the age of 65, and next year this number is expected to reach 19.5%.

As life expectancy increases, so do the complexities of aging and the impact on individuals, caregivers and the community as a whole.

Approximately 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have some form of dementia, a progressive condition that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, problems with reasoning, perception and communication skills.  Dementia can also affect one’s ability to perform everyday tasks, such as making a sandwich or getting dressed.

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, accounts for 60% to 80% of cases with early onset on the rise.  Other types of dementia include Lewy Body, Frontotemporal and Vascular dementia, with 7.7 million new cases diagnosed worldwide each year.

The Town of Greenwich Commission on Aging has taken a proactive approach in addressing the growing needs of its aging population and improving the quality of care for all residents.

In 2016, the Commission launched the “Age Friendly Community” initiative, a multi-year phased action plan incorporating proven best practices put forth by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

This includes revamping infrastructures and services to be fully accessible and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capabilities.  Greenwich, the first community in Connecticut to work on this initiative, will incorporate modifications to transportation, housing, social participation, outdoor spaces, civic participation and much more, as it pertains to “an age-friendly community.”

Selectman John Toner serves as the liaison between the Board of Selectman and the Commission on Aging on these efforts.

One key facet of this initiative is to elevate the understanding and support of those affected by dementia with its recent program, “Caregivers Circle: How to Become a Dementia Friend.”

The Caregiver Circle is a series of educational sessions focused on the well-being of caregivers and care partners in order to enhance the livability for all residents.

“Part of our mission with this program is to make people feel safe and feel cared for,” said Lori Contadina, MS, Executive Director of Greenwich Commission on Aging and presenter of the event. “By increasing the level of understanding of dementia, the culture of our community can be more supportive and make a difference for people touched by the disease,” where the progression can vary from person to person and affects each individual differently.

The informational session turned out more than 20 participants (co-hosted by Donna Spellman, MS, Executive Director of River House Adult Day Center) and provided expert insight and practical tips when encountering people who are living with dementia.

Contadina and Spellman addressed some of the early signs and symptoms of the disease and compared them to a normal aging brain.

For example, in the normal aging process, one sometimes forgets names or misplaces things, but can remember them later on.  In the dementia brain, memory loss can truly disrupt daily life, and a person loses the ability to retrace steps if something is misplaced.

Another example of the normal aging process is sometimes having trouble finding the right word, where an early sign of dementia includes having new problems with words in speaking or writing.

Additional early signs and symptoms include trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships and repeated decreased or use of poor judgement.

Some participants were apt to share their personal experiences with loved ones, which provided both context and empathy for particularly for those who were first learning about how to cope with a diagnosis.

One person said his mother who had dementia reverted back to her native language, making it much easier for her to communicate.

“We want to change the vernacular from “suffering from dementia,” to “living with dementia,” said Contadino. “Dementia does not define a person, but patience is the number-one quality we all need to have.”

Participants were asked to make a step-by-step list of instructions when making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, showing that something that seemed so simple, actually required a great deal of steps and could be overwhelming to someone affected.

Spellman offered tips on how to communicate with a person with dementia:

  1. Treat the person with dignity and respect
  2. Be aware of your feelings (use positive, friendly facial expressions)
  3. Be patient and supportive
  4. Offer comfort and reassurance
  5. Avoid criticizing or correcting
  6. Avoid arguing
  7. Offer a guess (if the person uses the wrong word or cannot find a word)
  8. Encourage nonverbal communication

Conversational tips included:

  1. Keep good eye contact. If a person is seated or reclined, go down to that level.
  2. Use short, simple phrases and repeat information as needed.
  3. Speak slowly and clearly and use a gentle, relaxed tone.
  4. Patiently wait for a response while the person takes time to process what you said.
  5. Provide a statement rather than a question. For example, say, “The bathroom is right here,” instead of asking, “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
  6. Give visual cues. Point or touch the item you want the person to use or begin the task for him or her.
  7. Try using written notes or pictures as reminder if the person is able to understand them.

At the end of the work session, participants became certified “Dementia Friends” with the promise that they in turn would help someone else in the community, if not a loved one of their own.

The Town of Greenwich Commission on Aging has worked to improve the quality of life for older residents since 1975 through its planning, advocacy, education and senior programs.

Programs include “The Health Insurance Counseling Program” in cooperation with Family Centers, Inc., “The Share-the-Fare Taxi Voucher Program,” a subsidized taxi program for residents 62 and older, and the Greenwich Senior Center, located at 299 Greenwich Ave., the town’s hub for independent seniors providing recreation, enrichment, volunteer and paid employment, and social services, including a daily lunch for $5.00 with free transportation to and from the center.

Upcoming “Caregiver Circle” events include, “Care in the Home: Navigating Options,” on Tues. April 23, “Advance Directives 101: Understanding the Advanced Directive Maze,” on Tues. May 28, and “Brain Boost,” on Tues. June 25.  All events take place at the Greenwich Library, from 6-7 p.m., and are open to the public free of charge.

Visit DementiaFriendsCT.org for more information and visit greenwichctonline.com to learn more about the Greenwich Commission on Aging, or call (203) 862-6710.

A comprehensive resource guide for older adults, people with disabilities, families and caregivers to make informed decisions through streamlined access to services is available at greenwichct.gov. This guide is updated annually.

Volunteer opportunities are also available with the Commission, such as becoming a health insurance counselor or distributing directories.  Please contact Contadino for more information at (203) 862-6710.

About Author: Michelle Moskowitz

Michelle Moskowitz is a reporter and ambassador for the Greenwich Sentinel. Ms. Moskowitz has an extensive background in media serving as the head of LIFETIME Television’s new media division, covering events and news stories all over the country. She was also VP of Business Development at BestSelections.com, Senior Manager at Young & Rubicam, and ran her own boutique Internet firm with a focus on content development. Ms. Moskowitz has been living in the Greenwich community for over a decade. She graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Email: michelle@greenwichsentinel.com

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