New Westminster becomes B.C.’s first Dementia Friendly city council

The City of New Westminster has become British Columbia’s first dementia-friendly city council.

City council recently participated in a training session offered by the Alzheimer Society of B.C. The society is working with municipalities, professionals, corporations and volunteers to better support people with dementia through its dementia-friendly communities initiative.

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“This is not just a seniors disease. This is a disease that impacts us all, whether it’s our family, our friends, or (our) community,” said society CEO Maria Howard. “A community can be a city, a city can be a corporation, like a bank. It could be a group of people in a seniors centre or a library.”

Howard said communities have an opportunity to think about the way they interact with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and what they can do to improve the quality of life and support people who are living in the community.

“We know that about 60 per cent of people with Alzheimer or dementias are still living at home in the community,” she said. “That’s really important because that’s where we want people to stay at the place where they feel most comfortable, where they have made their networks and their social engagements, where they have made a difference in their life.”

According to the Alzheimer Society of B.C., people with dementia often face challenges with shopping, banking, eating out at a restaurant, going to the post office. They also have difficulties using transportation, going on holidays, maintaining social contact or enjoying hobbies in the community.

The society applauded New Westminster city council’s efforts to take the Dementia Friends education and training and to be come a dementia-friendly city council.

“The City of New Westminster is the first city council to take this step. We are saying you are definitely the first city council in B.C. We are thinking you are probably one of the first in Canada, so this is a real wonderful place to be,” Howard said. “Becoming a dementia-friendly community isn’t a finite action – this is only the beginning. This is the beginning of the education and tools which then we are going to encourage you to step out beyond this building and really roll this into your community.”

The Alzheimer Society of B.C. is relying on Dementia Friends – like New West city council members – to spread the word about why it’s important to be dementia friends.

“We are very proud to be the first municipality to go through the program and hope other cities across the region go through this,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “There are a great number of people in British Columbia with dementia. I think we all probably have some personal story. Myself, I grew up with my grandfather in our household. He had Alzheimer’s. Even seeing the presentation, got me thinking about that experience and potentially some ways his life could have been made a little bit better.”

Cote said communities have an opportunity to see what they can do to become more welcoming to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“My grandfather’s favourite restaurant was Ricky’s restaurant. I’m not convinced it was just about the food. I think it was because that particular restaurant he went to, the waitresses understood his condition but were also welcoming and friendly,” he said. “To him, outside our home that was probably the most comfortable place he had. How can we make sure there are more and more of those types of spaces?”

According to the society, more than 70,000 people in B.C. are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia. It’s estimated that nearly 180,000 British Columbians will be living with the disease in 30 years.

“We know that more than 70,000 people with dementia are currently living in B.C. That is sort of a surprising number for a lot of people because they don’t realize how big this disease has gotten and how prevalent it has become,” said Rebecca Morris, an advocacy analyst with the society. “What is more surprising is we are expecting this number to more than double in 30 years. We are expecting this disease to impact our communities in a more profound way than ever before. This will affect us as individuals who might develop the disease; it might affect us as neighbours, as potential caregivers and friends of people who may develop this disease."

According to Morris, more than 10,000 British Columbians who are living with the disease are under the age of 65.

“We often think this is only a disease that affects people who are older. In fact, this disease affects people who are in their early 60s, their 50s and in rarer cases even in their 40s or early 30s,” she said. “This is a disease that really has an opportunity to impact all of us.”

Morris said a dementia-friendly community is a place that considers the social and physical needs of people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia. That could include clear signage for washrooms, dementia-friendly workshops and policies that allow people with dementia to participate in activities.

“It’s a community where there is reduced stigma,” she said. “It’s a community where individuals with dementia feel comfortable engaging and getting out there, going to a recreation class perhaps, ordering their coffee, participating in a book club that have always participated in. It can mean a lot of different things for different people.”

Small actions can lead to big changes in the lives of people with dementia, Morris said.

“We are not asking people to understand what is happening in the neurons in the brain, we are not asking folks to understand what the latest research is, we are really just asking people to have a little more respect for somebody who is living with dementia, to try and make the person feel accepted and to focus on that person’s strengths and abilities, rather than the challenges they are having, whenever it’s possible.”

According to the society, myths exist about dementia leading to people to believe it only affects older people, is strictly a genetic disorder, is a normal part of aging/memory loss, is preventable and curable, and is caused by aluminum. Some of the signs of dementia include problems with memory, difficulty with familiar tasks (such as making a pot of coffee), disorientation of time or place, unable to find the right words, problems with abstract thinking (such as having a hard time understanding jokes), challenges following conversations and poor judgment (like dressing inappropriately for weather).

“It doesn’t mean an end of an meaningful life,” Morris said. “It doesn’t mean a person can’t understand what is going on around them.”

In addition to offering Dementia Friends training to the B.C. Legislature in the spring, the Alzheimer Society of B.C. plans to launch a web-based Dementia Friends program this spring. For more information, visit www.alzheimerbc.org.

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