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Dementia Friends: changing the way people think, act, and talk about dementia

November is designated as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Alzheimer ’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan established National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, fewer than 2 million Americans had dementia caused by Alzheimer's Disease. Today, the number of people with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia has soared to nearly 5.7 million and will continue to increase as the population ages. The imperative to foster community environments that help people with dementia feel involved and supported in the places they work, live and play is also growing.

Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS) has a strong history of care for those with dementia and for community outreach. PHS partnered with ACTonAlzheimer’s-Minnesota, which launched its pilot in 2012 at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, ACTonAlzheimers works with many community sectors, including health, social services, religious and government sectors to create dementia friendly communities throughout Minnesota. Central to ACTonAlzheimer’s mission is to promote Dementia Friends, a global movement that is changing the way people think, act, and talk about dementia.

Margaret Belanger, resident of Carondelet Village and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Chapter (CSJ) has been involved in Dementia Friends since the beginnings of ACTonAlzheimers. “Dementia Friends a natural outgrowth of the unique faith-based missions of PHS and CJS,” said Margaret. “It’s also a good fit for the Carondelet Circle community wellness outreach program that has been core to the vision of Carondelet Village,” she said.

“Dementia is a word that is not very friendly,” says Carol Kuhlmann, a leader in the St. Paul Chapter of ACTonAlzhemers (SPN-ACT). “When I first heard about Dementia Friends, I thought this was really an amazing name for this effort. My experience has been watching people with dementia lose all their friends. We can actually create friends for people with dementia. I wanted to be part of that!” she said.

Meghan Constantini, SPN-ACT coordinator explains, “A dementia friend is somebody of any age who spends one hour learning a little bit about dementia. We have five key messages about dementia. We talk about what a dementia friendly community looks like and most importantly offer some tips on communicating with people with dementia and how to access resources if you’re impacted by dementia.”

Marge France, Carondelet Village resident, volunteers as a Dementia Friends Champion, leading Dementia Friends sessions. “I’ve been a volunteer most of my adult life and have gravitated to people with dementia,” she said. She recalls feeling stunned and sad when a person she knew who was caring for a spouse with dementia told her that people avoided them.  “Everybody wants to be included,” she said. She feels that the most important learning as a Dementia Friend is to be patient and to practice new ways of communicating that helps connect with people who have dementia. “Communication is vital and it takes practice,” she explains. “You have to be patient with the person with dementia but you also have to be patient with yourself.” A Dementia Friend session includes discussion about how to communicate better with simple tips such as always approaching and talking from the front of a person, smiling and allowing conversation to go wherever the person with dementia’s reality is in a given moment. 

“People are so grateful for these tips,” said Carol who has led several Dementia Friends session. “Knowing that there’s an opportunity for hope, that the word “friend” is involved is so important to me. If we can be friends to people with dementia; if we can learn how to communicate differently and change our expectations, we can remind people that they are more than their dementia. We can remind them that they are still valued and contributing members of the community. After all, isn’t that’s what friends do?” she said.

Remember...

You don’t need to be a dementia expert to become a Dementia Friend.
You don’t need to know someone with dementia to become a Dementia Friend.
After attending the session, you decide whether becoming a Dementia Friend is right for you
To learn more about Dementia Friends or find a Dementia Friends Session near you, visit http://www.actonalz.org/dementia-friends.
 

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