By Alice Bonner, Ph.D., RN, FAAN
Secretary, Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs
A top priority for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA) is promoting the best possible quality of life for individuals living with dementia and their care partners.
Dementia may be an unfamiliar term or one that is misunderstood. It describes a variety of changes in thinking, memory, and behaviors that are not a part of normal aging. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but any form of dementia can cause significant problems that can impact a person’s life.
An estimated 5.3 million people age 65 and older in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s-disease or related dementia, including an estimated 120,000 right here in Massachusetts. The number of Massachusetts residents with Alzheimer’s is expected to rise to 150,000 by the year 2025, and continue to grow in the decades that follow. Because of this, we must prepare for many more people in our families and our Commonwealth living with some form of dementia.
I know about this issue all too well because, in addition to leading EOEA, I’m also a care partner for my mother, who is 88 years old and has Alzheimer’s. I’ve seen first hand the challenges and stress that dementia can bring — both for the person with the condition and for those of us caring for them. However, being a care partner for someone with Alzheimer’s also brings opportunities and rewards. For example, when we go out for lunch in my mother’s hometown of Northampton, there are many restaurants where the staff and servers recognize us and are willing to take a little extra time for her to figure out the menu. They are kind and patient; even if my mother’s behavior isn’t always “typical,” we still can enjoy going out to lunch together.
This example of kindness and understanding is representative of work many cities, towns, and individuals are doing in Massachusetts to make life better for people with dementia and their care partners.
Last summer, the Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Acute Care Advisory Committee, which I was honored to co-chair with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, delivered a set of recommendations for improved care of people with dementia when they are admitted to hospitals, emergency departments, and other acute care settings.
This is critical because we know that people with dementia are at higher risk of injuries, illnesses, and hospitalizations because of their condition. Often a trip to a busy emergency room or inpatient hospitalization is very disorienting for people with dementia, and the dementia-related communications challenges can often make treatment more difficult.
The Commission recommended better planning to provide for the special needs of individuals with dementia, and that hospitals include the knowledge and the needs of care partners in that planning, especially regarding transfers and discharge to home. The recommendations also call for better training for hospital staff on the needs of people with dementia and their care partners.
Residents living with dementia also benefit from numerous activities that are part of Dementia Friendly Massachusetts. This grassroots movement’s goal is making our communities safe, inclusive and respectful of people with dementia. There are more than 20 cities and towns that are actively implementing comprehensive dementia-friendly efforts in their communities, including the new program ‘Dementia Friends’.
Additionally, there are now more than 75 communities in Massachusetts with “memory cafés.” Memory cafés provide a welcoming place for people with dementia, their family, and friends to visit, relax and connect with others who understand the challenges and joys of dementia and caring for someone with the condition.
Want to get involved? You don’t need to have dementia or be caring for someone who does to take part in making our state more welcoming for people with this condition.
Dementia Friends Massachusetts offers a one-hour information session on what dementia is and the simple things that you can do to support people living with the disease in your community. To find out more about attending a Dementia Friends information session, visit www.DementiaFriendsMA.org.
If you’re caring for someone with dementia and looking for help or services, call MassOptions toll free at 1-844-422-6277 or visit massoptions.org. MassOptions is a free public service connecting older residents and those with disabilities to the services they need to live independently.