Linda Roers

Linda Roers

Dementia describes a decline in mental ability, such as memory loss, that’s severe enough to interfere with daily life. While Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, there are other types. A new coalition, Dementia Friendly Billings, has formed to help address the concerns raised by the growing number of people with Alzheimer’s and related dementia.

Alzheimer’s effects one in 10 people age 65 and over in the United States. By 2050, that number is expected to nearly triple to a projected 13.8 million. In Montana, it’s estimated that more than 20,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s, and more than 2,000 of them live in Billings.

Dementia Friendly Billings grew out of a dementia conference presentation by Dementia Friendly America, a Minnesota-based group. The Billings group, which was launched by representatives from Big Sky Senior Services, Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health and the Alzheimer’s Association, now includes representatives from health care, the faith community and nonprofits. The group kicked off last June with an event at the Billings Public Library.

People often assume that people with dementia live in nursing homes, but many people with early stage dementia remain in their community, where they live successfully for years by making some adjustments and taking safety precautions.

A key factor in their success is whether they can lean on others in their community to help maintain their independence. That’s where Dementia Friendly America comes in — to help older adults with dementia to be independent and continue to engage with and contribute to their community.

A dementia-friendly community helps older adults with dementia to remain independent while still engaging with their community. Dementia Friendly Billings seeks to improve the quality of life and safety for individuals with the disease, as well as their families and caregivers.

Dementia is such a terrifying disease that seniors often don’t seek out a diagnosis. Sometimes it’s a business, like a bank, or a church member who first recognizes the problem. The Dementia Friendly Billings Initiative takes an all-sectors approach to get everyone involved, from businesses and faith communities, to health care, local government, attorneys and neighbors. The initiative intends to train and certify store clerks, clergy, waiters, law enforcement and others to be alert to signs of dementia and know how to handle common situations.

A police officer might learn how to get someone home safely if a suspected drunk driver turns out to be someone with dementia. A store clerk or waitress might learn to help someone who struggles to make change or forgets to pay. Employers can help their own employees through policies that support caregivers. Community services can offer a range of options to maximize independence and ongoing community engagement.

When more people know what to do when someone in public is having a hard time — whether that person has dementia or not — everyone benefits.

If you’d like to get involved with Dementia Friendly Billings, please contact Suzanne, the volunteer coordinator at Big Sky Senior Services, by calling 259-3111.

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Linda Roers, a geriatric educator with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 651-6484 or linda.roe@riverstonehealth.org.