Program seeks caring roadmap for Alzheimer’s

One-third of Minnesotans over 85 have the disease


Dr. Olivia Mastry
Guest Writer

The recent holidays were an occasion for family conversations in homes throughout Minnesota. After spending time together with loved ones, some families came face-to-face with the reality of aging relatives. Moments of confusion – what once could be laughingly chalked up to a “senior moment” – became the catalyst for conversations about how best to support Mom or Dad.

There currently are 100,000 Minnesotans living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 23 percent of Minnesota’s population will be 60 and older by the year 2030, an increase of more than 33 percent from 2012. Take into account that one in nine people age 65 and older and one-third of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s and it becomes clear that Minnesota is about to face a steep challenge in how it will prepare and succeed in creating a supportive environment for people with dementia and their families.

For many families the first conversation can raise more questions than it can answers. Where do we start? What questions do we ask our doctor? Where in the community can we turn to for help and resources?

Fortunately, Minnesota is known for its high-quality health care and its innovative approaches to challenging issues. A new community-based approach to Alzheimer’s is combining both traditions. A volunteer-driven initiative, ACT on Alzheimer’s, is helping communities become “dementia friendly” through a dynamic, cross-sector, collaborative process.

The program’s goals are to build broad awareness among all community members of dementia and a broader understanding of the everyday actions people can take to help those who need assistance. The initiative also will work with communities to develop strategies that can help those with dementia live independently for as long as possible. Actions could be as simple as helping retail clerks recognize the signs that a customer with dementia may need assistance and how best to help.

Seven Minnesota communities, defined by both geographical region and shared interest, already are working to make their communities more dementia-friendly. A training session developed by the Twin Cities Jewish Community teaches Rabbis signals to identify dementia and ways to help intervene and offer support to families. The St. Paul Neighborhoods group is adapting a program from Europe to develop a community of dementia friends who can identify signs of dementia and feel comfortable to assist someone in an everyday situation. St. Louis Park is taking advantage of existing programs in the city to raise awareness by including an Alzheimer’s   book for the citywide book club.

The ACT on Alzheimer’s task force in Forest Lake resolved that awareness and education in the community will create a new culture around an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Helping those with dementia to maintain their dignity is important, but there are also practical, economic issues. Around 70 percent of Minnesotans with dementia live in their own home. Community support can encourage them to stay involved in our communities as volunteers, taxpayers and customers.

Dementia-friendly communities also help support the 250,000 caregivers in Minnesota. Caring for a loved one with dementia often results in a loss of productivity at work and reports of poor physical and mental health. Community support can ease the burden for family and friends.

ACT on Alzheimer’s is implementing a broader strategy to prepare Minnesota for the future. The collaborative is also working to identify and invest in promising approaches to Alzheimer’s treatment, promoting increased detection and early diagnosis, raising awareness and helping to support and sustain caregivers.

The community-based initiatives, though, are essential to Minnesota’s long-term success and livability. Businesses, faith communities, service organizations and other critical stakeholders can and must step forward to begin this important work of fostering age friendly and dementia supportive communities. Because, at the heart of meeting the challenges and capitalizing on the opportunities of the “Age Wave” in Minnesota is how we care for each other. Everyone can ACT on Alzheimer’s.

Olivia Mastry, J.D., M.P.H. is the executive lead of ACT on Alzheimer’s and founder of the Collective Action Lab.