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Dementia care specialist aims to foster a more patient public

Nancy Abrahamson, dementia care specialist at the Aging & Disability Resource Center of St. Croix County, displays a window cling that local businesses can earn after completing dementia training. Abrahamson’s goal is to make St. Croix County communities more dementia friendly. (Photo by Micheal Foley)

Until last fall, Nancy Abrahamson worked in caregiver support at St. Croix County’s Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC). In September, her title changed to dementia care specialist as part of a shift in the way St. Croix County and the State of Wisconsin is approaching dementia.

“The reason that I’m doing this is that incidents of dementia are really increasing and dementia is one of those diseases that’s misunderstood, scary and carries a lot of stigma,” Abrahamson said. “The State of Wisconsin itself has made it a mission to redesign the way Wisconsin takes care of people with dementia.”

Abrahamson said the state is attacking dementia on many levels, including long-term care, emergency preparedness, and day-to-day lives in communities.

“One of the tasks that I’m charged with is to help facilitate the creation of dementia-friendly communities,” Abrahamson said.

Since September Abrahamson has examined current practices at St. Croix County Health and Human Services (HHS) and the ADRC to determine what kind of training staff would require. She also examined what each department’s connection to dementia is and how it can improve.

“It’s really about raising awareness about what some of the needs are with dementia and caregiving, and how we can better work together interdepartmentally,” Abrahamson said.

After surveying staff, Abrahamson found that many employees felt they didn’t know enough about dementia and wanted to learn more.

Abrahamson said the entire ADRC staff has recently completed comprehensive dementia training that specifically dealt with what the disease is, how it manifests itself and how to communicate effectively with people who suffer from it.

“When the brain is affected, we can’t relate on the same level or use the same techniques,” Abrahamson said.

With ADRC and HHS staff up to speed, Abrahamson is now working on fostering entire dementia-friendly communities within the county, starting in New Richmond, Hudson and Baldwin.

In New Richmond, Abrahamson has met with City Administrator Mike Darrow about providing her training to city employees. She has also spoken with New Richmond Area Centre Executive Director Darian Blattner about holding Memory Cafe events to help provide social engagement and support for people in the early stages of dementia and their caregivers.

Abrahamson is also hoping to meet with local chambers of commerce and civic organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs about providing dementia training for all sorts of businesses in St. Croix County communities.

“I’ll be going door-to-door and encouraging businesses to get training,” Abrahamson said. “We will come into a business and take no more than 30 minutes of the staff’s time. When businesses train a minimum of 50 percent of their staff, they will get a window cling that says they are dementia friendly.”

For people with dementia and their caregivers, the window clings can help signal which places they are likely to feel most comfortable, and be treated with patience and understanding, because just being out in public presents a host of challenges for people struggling with memory conditions.

“Because they can’t communicate as clearly, there is a lot of impatience and inflexibility,” Abrahamson said. “Another thing that can happen is that the person goes into a store to buy something and can’t remember why they are there. It might take them a little while, and they may need some prompting. Sometimes, because they are emotionally overt, they may say things that can be hurtful.”

Abrahamson said some people with dementia can exhibit impulsive behavior, and some can find themselves in shoplifting incidents after picking up an item they intend to purchase, getting distracted and walking out of the shop without paying for the item.

“Sometimes they’re mistaken for being drunk because their speech is impaired,” Abrahamson said. “There are a number of things, because nobody wears a sign that says ‘I’m really not drunk’ or ‘I’m really not a shoplifter.’ We tend to want to hold people accountable for adult behaviors, and they look like adults, but their brains aren’t tracking the way they once did.”

Abrahamson said such incidents also cause a lot of embarrassment for the individuals suffering from dementia.

In addition to all that, Abrahamson is also providing some basic dementia education directly to interested residents. On Tuesday, March 24, the ADRC, in partnership with WITC and the Alzheimer’s Association, will offer two 90-minute dementia information sessions at the WITC campus in New Richmond. The first will take place at 2 p.m.; the second will begin at 6:30 p.m

In the future, Abrahamson hopes to partner with area hospitals to provide more educational opportunities for community members.

Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley worked at RiverTown Multimedia from July 2013 to June 2015 as editor at the New Richmond News. 
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