LeadingAge Magazine · July-August 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 04

Community Connections: How to Help Make Your Community Dementia-Friendly and Age-Friendly

July 18, 2017 | by David Tobenkin

One great way for aging services providers to have social impact is to help make their cities and states dementia-friendly and age-friendly.

LeadingAge and its members are engaging in a variety of ways with 2 important national initiatives, one for creating cities and communities receptive to residents of all ages, the other aimed at largely doing the same for those with dementia. The Age-Friendly Communities movement and Dementia Friendly America offer obvious overlaps and synergies with the mission of LeadingAge and its members.

Dementia Friendly America

Launched in 2015, Dementia Friendly America (DFA) seeks to more effectively support and serve those across the U.S. who are living with dementia, along and their families and caregivers. DFA now has 45 communities in 36 states active in the DFA initiative, in addition to more than 40 communities in Minnesota, where another organization launched a similar, more local version of the effort, according to Meredith Hanley, director of community capacity building at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), which is administering the DFA effort.

Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, is a co-chair of DFA.

“Our goal is to have a presence in every state by the end of the year and there are 14 states where we do not,” says Nora Super, chief, program and services for n4a. “Katie is helping us identify LeadingAge members in those 14 states and introducing them to DFA.” Other efforts to support the initiative include using the LeadingAge Dementia Services listserv to provide updates on dementia-related topics, including the DFA initiative, notes Kirsten Jacobs, LeadingAge associate director, dementia and wellness education.

LeadingAge Nebraska has been involved in initial steps to expand the DFA movement in that state. “Nebraska recently passed an Alzheimer’s State Plan as a result of the Aging Nebraskan’s task force,” says Julie Kaminski, until recently CEO of LeadingAge Nebraska. “Out of our state plan we become aware of DFA and the amazing tools and resources they have to educate our community. LeadingAge Nebraska formed a collaborative with Home Instead, AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, Methodist Health Systems, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, our Area Agencies on Aging, the ombudsman and other stakeholders to see how we could move DFA forward. We recently had a community gathering to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our community as it relates to Alzheimer’s resources and education, and will meet again soon to decide how we define community and where to target our first education efforts.”

LeadingAge Virginia is working with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services on a launch meeting to bring DFA to Virginia,” says LeadingAge Virginia president and CEO Melissa Andrews. “We have brainstormed with stakeholders and will be reaching out to DFA to facilitate that first workshop.”

Plantsville, CT-based Alzheimer's Resource Center, a LeadingAge member, has been a member of the DFA network for over a year and is “working locally to identify community stakeholders interested in taking forward DF initiatives to our region, including starting grassroots movements with a couple of different working groups,” says Stephani Shivers, the organization’s director of community innovations.

Shivers says it is important that aging services providers step up and become part of dementia friendly initiatives.

“LeadingAge members are touching those with dementia and Alzheimer's Disease on a daily basis,” Shivers says. “We can provide more opportunities for people on the early side of the continuum of these conditions. We tend to focus our efforts toward people who are in the moderate and later stages of these conditions by providing specialized 'dementia care' in segregated, locked spaces. What if LeadingAge communities became places where people in the early stages of these conditions could have an active role in dementia friendly initiatives, in advocacy to shape the policies and services designed to meet their needs, and in peer support and education to decrease stigma and foster personal understanding on how to be a friend to someone living with dementia? How different would that be!"

Given the prevalence of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in aging service provider residences and the challenges of responding to these conditions, participating in the DFA initiative may help address aging services provider challenges in serving their communities, Super says.

“Surveys show that many family members with relatives in aging services communities with these conditions come away upset with how they are treated, including feelings that there is a lack of respect toward them or that staff does not work to stimulate them, such as through music or art,” Super says. “We believe with more communities, including Leading Age members, joining the Dementia Friendly America network, we can have an impact on those issues.”

Age-Friendly Communities

The Age-Friendly Cities and Communities movement is an international effort launched in 2006 by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help cities prepare for rapid population aging, and the parallel trend of urbanization, by recognizing communities whose elected leadership has made the commitment to actively work toward making their towns, cities or counties great places for people of all ages.

Beacon Hill Village, a 350-member village community in downtown Boston, has also been involved in the Boston Age-Friendly Community movement. “When the age-friendly initiative launched here 2 years ago, we helped by participating in planning and listening teams,” says Laura Connors, executive director of Beacon Hill Village. “As the city’s action plan for this effort goes forward—the plan just came out in May and we are still analyzing it—our village will be one of the implementation teams.”

Connors says the initiative is a natural fit for villages such as her own.

“The notion of creating an age-friendly community to facilitate aging in place is exactly where the concept of villages came from,” Connors says. “Our members are demonstrating purposeful living just by running and participating in a village—our members form all the Beacon Hill Village committees, with support from a small professional staff. We’re role models for what positive aging looks like.”

Portland, OR, is another member of the global Age-Friendly Network, one of the initial 9 cities worldwide selected in 2010 to be a pioneer member of the WHO Network of Age-Friendly Cities. The city adopted an Action Plan for an Age-Friendly Portland in 2013. Portland’s initiative is a sprawling, diverse effort addressing a wide range of age-friendly issues, including housing, transportation, outdoor spaces and buildings, civic participation and many others, notes Alan DeLaTorre, a research associate at Portland State University, who over the last 2 years has used City of Portland grant money to help support the efforts.

As concerns aging services providers, a large take-away from efforts to date is that they may need to reconsider their community models to better reflect the desires of seniors for age-friendly cities.

“Many residential [communities] for older adults are located on the fringes of urban areas because that was the cheapest land available,” DeLaTorre says. “We think such communities should, if possible, be located in areas that would be more beneficial for independence because they are closer to services or transportation. We have advised care facilities to consider giving away transit passes and get residents onto local transit to explore where it will take them.”

David Tobenkin is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC, area.