Don Heinzman Column: Alzheimer’s awareness on the rise

Don Heinzman

Don Heinzman

In our communities, there is a silent, incurable disease called Alzheimer’s that gradually destroys a person’s ability to remember, learn and do simple tasks.

In Minnesota, it’s estimated that 88,000 people 65 years and older have this incurable disease, according to Act on Alzheimer’s, and one in three people who are 85 years and older have dementia.

It doesn’t just attack the elderly. Younger people, often 30-65 years old, can get early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The movie “Still Alice,” now showing, is a fictional account of Dr. Alice Howland, who is struck by Alzheimer’s and mentally dies.

Her husband, two daughters and a son grapple with the knowledge that their mother gradually is disappearing.

This is scary to talk about, but some communities are organizing to become “dementia friendly.”

Why?

Here’s a true story from North Branch: An elderly man walked into a coffee shop and sat down without ordering a coffee. He did this for days until the manager asked what he was doing there. He could only mumble an answer.

Later the manager saw a woman come to get him. She was his daughter; she said she couldn’t leave him alone and she didn’t know where else to take him.

North Branch is organizing so caregivers will have access to local resources and so store managers will become aware of customers with the disease.

Here’s another true story.

Jodi Christensen, from the Stillwater area, tells of watching her mother-in-law go through embarrassing moments such as forgetting what she ordered in a restaurant to the disbelief of other people.

Later, as she was fitted for new glasses, her mother-in-law struggled with answering questions, to the bewilderment of the woman helping her.

Christensen now is a member of a Stillwater action team following directions of a state organization by assessing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan. Beth Wiggins, who is director of caregiver support and aging services at Stillwater-based nonprofit FamilyMeans, is leading the team that estimates over 1,000 residents in the area are living with Alzheimer’s.

They’ve come up with three action steps:

–Train community members how to interact with those who have dementia.

–Train staff at a variety of institutions how to recognize and serve people with dementia.

– Find and refer people to resources for families affected by dementia.

In Cambridge, the action team is training government staff and emergency first responders how to identify and assist persons with dementia.

The action team in St. Louis Park is creating a reading list about Alzheimer’s and intends to buy the books and place them in churches, community centers and libraries. They are preparing book kits about the disease along with a study guide.

In Edina, where one of four residents is 60 years of age, an action team has just completed a survey to determine its plan.

You can find how to organize and develop a plan for your community by going to http://www.actonalz.org.

 

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers Inc.

 

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