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AARP Bulletin

Making a Town Dementia-Friendly

How Watertown, Wis., is improving the lives of an often-neglected group

Watertown, Wis., dementia-friendly town

"We're hoping to raise awareness," says Jan Zimmerman, "so [dementia] is not something that hides in the closet." — Ackerman + Gruber

En español l In Watertown, Wis., the windows of nine businesses display small purple angels. The decals indicate that the employees inside have been trained in how to recognize customers with dementia and how to best assist them and their caregivers.

In the Connection Cafe, for example, baristas might encourage patrons with memory loss to simply point to which size of coffee they want. And employees at the State Bank of Reeseville have been trained to look for signs that customers have been scammed.

It's part of a broader effort to educate the town's 24,000 residents about dementia and to keep those who have the condition engaged in the community by providing the services they need.

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The concept of making communities dementia-friendly is spreading in Europe but is just beginning to take hold in the United States, notably in Minnesota. AARP Minnesota has joined more than 50 groups in the ACT on Alzheimer's collaboration to help communities prepare for growing numbers of residents with dementia. (The AARP online Caregiving Resource Center is one of the resources recommended on the ACT on Alzheimer's website.)

"We have to get rid of this fear of admitting that 'I've got dementia' or 'My loved one has dementia,' " says Jan Zimmerman, a nurse and administrator at the Heritage Homes senior living community who initiated the effort in Watertown last year. "We're hoping to raise awareness so this is not something that hides in the closet."

Lori La Bey, executive director of Alzheimer's Speaks, an advocacy group in St. Paul, Minn., helped launch the Watertown movement. At the Connection Cafe she asked people with dementia and their caregivers to share their "blessings and bummers." One sweet, shy resident of the Heritage Homes memory care wing was the first to answer. "I hate this disease and what it's done to my family," she said, choking back tears. "And my blessing is my daughter here. She's my lifeline." La Bey calls the Watertown effort "phenomenal."

"I think it's going to continue to expand," she says. "People are seeing the need, and this does not have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time."

Elizabeth Agnvall is a writer and features editor for AARP Media.

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