BLACKSBURG — Aging Americans these days fear a dementia diagnosis worse than cancer: Brain cells die and things get fuzzier; old friends and familiar activities fall away. People with dementia face loneliness and isolation in their own communities, among others who don’t always understand the condition.

This fact has sparked a new phenomenon in the world of aging: dementia-friendly communities.

Warm Hearth Village in Blacksburg has been named Virginia’s first dementia-friendly business by the LeadingAge association of nonprofits serving the elderly. Almost 200 staff members, a fifth of the residents, all volunteers and now Warm Hearth’s board members have learned how to interact with and support people with the issue through Dementia Friend workshops.

Now the nonprofit retirement village has its sights on making Blacksburg a dementia-friendly community.

“A dementia-friendly community is informed, safe and respectful of individuals with dementia,” said social worker Marie Swink, who is coordinating the initiative at Warm Hearth.

A dementia-friendly community is a place where people in the community are able to identify and help those living with dementia. Where business owners train employees to recognize customers with dementia so they can offer special assistance. Where stressed family caregivers and people with dementia can find support groups and social outlets.

In other words, it’s a community where dementia is understood — not feared.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people across the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. The number is expected to reach 7.1 million in the next decade. Nearly 60 percent of people with dementia stay in their home communities, and one in seven live alone, creating an urgent need for communities to do things that support people with dementia and their caregivers.

Communities across the country, from cities to counties to entire states, are heeding that call to work toward becoming “dementia-friendly.” The Dementia Friendly America initiative grew from a program in Minnesota and the 2015 White House Conference on Aging. Through it, Americans are being educated about dementia; business owners and first responders are being taught to assist those with memory loss; and communities are being made safer, kinder and more inclusive for people with dementia.

Nicole Long, social worker at Warm Hearth’s assisted living unit, leads workshops for staff, residents and the community as one of the retirement village’s six “dementia champions.”

She begins her one-hour presentation on dementia with five key facts:

• Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

• Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain.

• Dementia is not just about having memory problems, but about difficulties thinking, communicating and doing everyday tasks.

• It is possible to have a good quality of life with dementia.

• There is more to the person than the dementia.

“Despite the loss of abilities, people with dementia can still find pleasure and fulfillment,” Long said. “The goal of dementia friends and dementia-friendly communities is to help make it possible for people with dementia to be part of community life for as long as possible.”

The Dementia Friends workshops give attendees the confidence to offer help to people they may see in public places who seem to be struggling with memory issues. Long emphasized approaching the person with dementia from the front, identifying yourself, asking only one question at a time, using short phrases, and waiting patiently as the person takes time to process your words.

“Avoid criticizing and arguing,” Long said. “If someone thinks you’re his daughter, don’t keep trying to correct him. Just listen to what he has to say. Also, turn negatives into positives. Instead of saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ say ‘Let’s do this.’”

One workshop exercise — writing down all the steps involved in making a sandwich — made an especially strong impression on attendees. Though participants listed everything they could think of: taking the ingredients out of the cupboard, getting a knife, spreading the sides of the bread, putting the pieces on top of each other, cutting it down the middle, Long, impersonating a person with dementia, barraged them with questions, such as “Where’s the kitchen?” “What’s a cupboard?” and “How can I spread the thin side of the bread?”

Warm Hearth Activity Director Jonathan Tate also made the point that those with dementia wouldn’t remember all the steps. At some point, they’d forget what they were doing and go on to something else.

At the end of the class, Long asked each participant to commit to an action as a result of the workshop. Melissa Andrews, president and CEO of LeadingAge, says among the 1,400 Virginians who have become Dementia Friends, she’s heard pledges to educate church groups about dementia, serve meals to impaired neighbors, and teach work groups about how to deal with customers with memory issues.

“No action is too big or too small,” she said. “They all have impact.”

In the Warm Hearth group, resident Alva Lucas, 94, vowed to have more patience with a table mate, while staff member Connie Musselman said she’d offer to sit with her neighbor so that the family caregiver could do errands.

The next step will be to make Blacksburg a dementia-friendly town, Swink said. Warm Hearth will continue to offer free Dementia Friends training sessions to the public to increase understanding of the disease and give participants the tools to respond kindly and effectively when interacting with people affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Warm Hearth has already established the Memory Café, a safe and welcoming environment for seniors learning to deal with Alzheimer’s disease, held the last Thursday of every month from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Warm Hearth’s Village Center. Warm Hearth also offers an Alzheimer’s support group twice a month at the Village Center. For information, call Heather Gearhart at 443-3448.

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