Education, discussion among goals of statewide collaboration
Editor’s note: In recognition of September as World Alzheimer’s Month, this is the second article in a two-part series on the disease.
Minnesota is experiencing a tremendous surge in the elderly population, and Forest Lake is taking a leading role in one of the state’s responses.
It is among seven pilot communities conducting Act on Alzheimer’s, a program that stems from the Alzheimer’s Disease Working Group, a legislatively mandated, 20-member task force created in 2009.
Act on Alzheimer’s aims to increase detection of the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death, invest in promising treatment and care approaches, reduce stigma, enhance resources for caregivers, and equip communities to be dementia capable.
The disease afflicts one-ninth of those ages 65 and over, and one-third of those 85 and over. In Minnesota, 100,000 people living with Alzheimer’s are looked after by 250,000 caregivers. As the average age rises, so too will those numbers.
“With the epidemic of people with Alzheimer’s that they’re stating is coming along, we want to be ready as a community,” said Lisa Pfeifer, housing manager at Birchwood Arbors Assisted Living and a member of the local Act on Alzheimer’s board. “We want Forest Lake to be ready.”
Pfeifer and Birchwood Senior Living marketing coordinator Jules Benson helped establish the project here this spring after learning of it from a networking group contact who works for the Central Minnesota Council on Aging.
Noting a strong correlation between the project’s goals and their work at Birchwood, Pfeifer and Benson in March got to work recruiting a steering committee.
Many of those members, along with other local volunteers, have spent the past few months administering surveys to local residents, leaders and business owners. The sessions produce data on the community’s knowledge of Alzheimer’s, as well as local perceptions of those who suffer from it and the area’s ability to accommodate it.
Those surveyed are also encouraged to make suggestions.
“Things are just starting to roll in, so it’s kind of exciting,” Pfeifer said. “You’re sitting there in the interview and all of a sudden, light bulbs go off: ‘Yeah, that’s what we need.’”
The survey team is set to wrap up its work by Thanksgiving and analyze the data in January.
“I think it’s going to be interesting and surprising to see, once everything’s correlated, where as a community we find our weaknesses are,” Benson said. “I think there’s going to be a few surprises in there we don’t expect.”
The local volunteers will then focus the results into recommendations, which they will then present to the city.
Of all the project’s wide-ranging aims, the Birchwood workers expect the most immediate gains to be made in raising awareness of Alzheimer’s and dementia and their treatment options. They have discovered through their work and through leading senior-related Community Education classes a significant lack of knowledge on aging issues.
“Anytime that we can get the education out to the community is huge,” Benson said. “We (at Birchwood) live with aging, we live with seniors, it’s common every day for us. … We never want to forget that not everybody works with seniors every day. You have families that are coming in all of a sudden scared, they don’t know what to do. ‘Where do we go? All of a sudden Mom’s falling, she’s forgetting, she’s losing money, she’s losing her car.’”
Working in assisted living, Pfeifer is often the first point of contact for locals who are unaware of where to turn when a loved one needs help.
“Truly many people, when they call there first, they don’t know if Mom or Dad need assisted living, if they need help at home,” she said. “I find myself an educator, educating people on what the next step is.”
Benson said society needs to learn that memory loss should not always be chalked up to aging.
“We need to glob onto this sooner, to get the drugs sooner, to get the help sooner,” she said. “The sooner you do, the better it is.”
Another area of emphasis is caregiver support, whether it be for doctors and nurses or simply the family members who look after their loved ones.
Benson and Pfeifer said Minnesotans are fortunate to have access to the Senior LinkAge Line. By calling 800-333-2433 or visiting www.MinnesotaHelp.info, residents can access resources and arrange for services, plan for long-term care, receive health insurance counseling and more.
The Act on Alzheimer’s project will also have more tangible results, organizers predict. These outcomes can be as simple as the addition of benches in a popular public walking area, the addition of a family bathroom in a popular restaurant or the enhancement of programs at a local senior center.
More challenging issues also exist, such as the lack of local adult day care and the need for more memory care facilities.
Pfeifer hopes the collaboration leads to action on the “low-hanging fruit,” and at least gets the conversation started on the big-picture issues.
While the mobilization of the local volunteers was impressive, Benson said the group has encountered resistance from some survey participants.
“What we’ve found is that unless this has hit you personally, other people don’t want to hear it,” she said. “That’s been a roadblock for us. People are afraid of it: ‘It’s not going to happen to me. It’s not going to affect me.’
“But it is. Even if it doesn’t affect you personally, … these people are going to affect you at some point, so why not be educated on how to deal with that?”
After all, Benson said, the project is all about helping those local family members, friends and neighbors who are suffering.
“Even if you have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, there’s still memories to be made, there’s still joys to be had,” she said.