Creating a dementia-friendly community in Oneida County
By Lori Adler, reporter
There are currently more than 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia in the United States. In Wisconsin, 110,000 people over the age of 65 suffer from the disease, and almost 11% of those age 45 or older experience some level of cognitive decline. The numbers are reaching epidemic proportions, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which presents a sobering statistic of a 145% increase in Alzheimer deaths between 2000 and 2017, making Alzheimer’s disease the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. In response, communities across the country, including many in Wisconsin, are working to find ways to enhance the quality of life for those dementia sufferers and their caregivers. Oneida County is one of those communities.
Recognizing the ever growing needs of area residents suffering from dementia, Oneida County Department of Social Services organized a group of business professionals dedicated to making Oneida County a dementia-friendly community. The group includes Carrie Mikalauski of Oneida County Social Services and Diane Sowinski, vice-president of marketing and business development at Ripco Credit Union. Other members of the group include additional social services and Ripco staff, as well as members from Inclusa and the Aging and Disability Resource Center.
Mikalauski explains, “The idea is to allow those that have dementia to be as independent as possible and to remain in their homes as long as possible. In order to do that, we need to have the community support, and that’s really what this program is all about, getting the community to understand what Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementia, really is, and what to expect from them and how they can assist the people that have dementia.”
Removing the stigma associated with dementia and helping people suffering from the disease to feel safe and accepted in the community is one of the main goals of this initiative. In addition, realizing the need for support of the caregivers of those with dementia is also an important aspect. In Wisconsin alone, it is estimated that 194,000 people (mostly family members) provide care for dementia sufferers. These caregivers often experience anxiety and frustration related to their efforts.
“It ‘s a caring and a comfort level for the caregivers themselves, so that if you are someone caring for a person with dementia, it can be a 24/7 job and to know that there are locations in town where you can go, and people will understand, where you don’t have to be uncomfortable.” Sowinski states, adding, “The more locations in town that can represent themselves as being dementia friendly, the more places, the more resources, caregivers have for the people that they’re caring for.”
To support dementia sufferers and their caregivers, communities must be educated to recognize dementia and to respond in a caring, respectful and understanding way. All members of the initiative group, including both Sowinski and Mikalauski, have been trained by the Alzheimer’s Association in dementia awareness and response and, in a train-the-trainer format, have been providing training to others. As a result, Oneida County Social Services and Ripco Credit Union (both the Rhinelander and Eagle River branches) are the first area locations to be certified as dementia friendly.
“It’s a very interactive and a casual training. It’s just how to be good people and help good people. It’s very informative and very eye-opening.” Sowinski remarks, later noting, “It gives more of a level of comfort to employees. You know what to expect, and you know who can help more, and you know that there are resources.”
The training can be done either as a large group event or as individual businesses, and it is offered free of charge. With these efforts, the group is hoping to spread the idea of a dementia friendly community all across the county, hoping to include as many businesses as possible as well as other area organizations.
“The end game isn’t just businesses. It’s faith-based communities, any organization, any agency, city hall, the entire courthouse, the entire community from gas stations to churches to stores. The idea is to have it all encompassing so that everybody is more aware of how to handle these folks. And I really think that It will help businesses if they have this training because they too can use it as a marketing tool for that population,” Mikalauski explains.
Businesses or organizations that have been trained will be entered into a database maintained by social services as a resource for those who work with dementia sufferers. Information will also be shared with the Alzheimer’s Association. In addition, a dementia-friendly window sticker will be provided so businesses can advertise their participation and eventually a website listing all participating businesses will be created.
Any business or organization is welcome to take part in this initiative and receive the free training. For more information or to sign up to participate, please contact Carrie Mikalauski at Oneida County Department of Social Services. She can be reached by phone at 715-362-5695 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.