Middleton Becomes 'Dementia Friendly'

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Mary Kay Baum, above, is one of many Middleton residents who applaud the city for its recent work to become 'dementia friendly.'

Mary Kay Baum is well educated, articulate and gregarious. But beneath the surface, she is struggling. The words she seeks are often elusive. Her train of thought wants to veer off course.

“It can get camouflaged by a good education or a large vocabulary – I often have to use a different word when I can’t find the one I want – but I’m working so much harder than most people do,” she explained. “If someone becomes impatient with me, it only makes it harder.”

Baum, 67, has mild cognitive problems that possibly stem from Alzheimer’s and vascular issues that run in her family.

She spent most of her life as a pillar of the community, serving on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, the Madison Metropolitan Board of Education, running for mayor in the City of Madison in 1987, and working as an ordained Lutheran pastor.

Today, living in the City of Middleton so she can be close to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, her biggest fear is being seen as a burden on her community.

“I know,” she said, “I’m not the only one.”

She isn’t.

Currently one in eight people over the age of 65 in the United States have dementia. It could be the result of age, genetics, wartime injuries, exposure to toxins, or a stroke.

With the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia growing, people across the City of Middleton have spent the last year working to increase understanding and support for those who for so many years were unfairly castigated as “crazy” or “senile.”

The Alzheimer’s & Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin (ADAW) last week recognized City of Middleton employees for completing the required training to become a certified “dementia friendly operation.”

While the challenges these individuals face are sometimes daunting, it was a joyous event, filled with laughter and hope.

The intent is that people with dementia and those who care for them will feel comfortable going to stores, restaurants and libraries without the fear of being misunderstood.

 “The ultimate goal … is that people with dementia feel comfortable in their communities,” said Joy Schmidt, ADAW’s community education specialist.

Schmidt went on to say the process began in January of 2014, when the alliance and the city began talks.

In last week’s ceremony, which took place Wednesday, January 7 at Middleton City Hall, Schmidt said employees in all facets of city government, including the library, senior center, police department, public works, public lands, the parks department and city hall, can now claim “dementia friendly” status, the first in Dane County.

“This group has embraced becoming dementia friendly,” said Schmidt. “They are competing with one another to have the most people trained and they love being the first community in Dane County. It’s fun to watch.”

City administrator Mike Davis said a “broad and diverse” group of employees took part in the training.

“I think it’s really a significant effort,” Davis commented.

“Each one of us knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who is struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” said Davis.

Jim Ramsey, head of adult services at the Middleton Public Library, helped spearhead the taskforce that formed in February of 2014 and ultimately made Middleton “dementia friendly.”

“It seemed like a natural fit for the library,” Ramsey stated.

“It’s important that everyone feels welcomed and respected,” he added.

Jill Krantz, Middleton Senior Center director, said 125 senior center volunteers took part in training.

The process ranged from improving signage to help individuals who are disoriented, to simply identifying signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia and removing what Schmidt called “the stigma” that surrounds individuals who deal with them.

Middleton business owners, managers, city employees and volunteers, with training and guidance from ADAW’s staff, embraced this effort and in August held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to recognize Middleton’s first dementia friendly businesses - including Walgreens, State Bank of Cross Plains, Ace Hardware of Middleton Springs, Fitzgerald’s Restaurant and Willy Street Co-op West - for their efforts to train 50 percent of employees on dementia-friendly practices and review environmental changes that would aid customers with dementia or memory challenges.

All of the departments within the City of Middleton municipality have met the criteria of training 50 percent or more of their departments.

ADAW is working with committees in Baraboo, Fitchburg, Janesville, Portage, Stoughton, Oregon, McFarland, Waunakee, Cross Plains, Monona, Verona and Mount Horeb in similar efforts.

“Isolation is the worst thing for us,” said Baum, who Middletonians might often spot strolling in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, where she catalogues the species she sees in order to keep her mind active. “It’s very easy to just stay inside from embarrassment.” 

 For those working to make Middleton “dementia friendly,” it feels good to know they are making valued members of the community feel comfortable around town.

For those who face cognitive challenges, it means so much more.

“It makes me feel safer,” said Baum. “It makes me feel I’m still a part of this community. It makes me less afraid.”

When Baum recently spotted a sign in the window of a local store indicated the business was dementia friendly, she walked in to thank the people who worked there for treating those with cognitive issues with respect.

“The clerk gave the most wonderful response,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Isn’t that the way we should treat everyone?’”

The mission of the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin is to support individuals, families, and professionals impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through information, education, consultation, and advocacy; and to promote the advancement of scientific research to better diagnose, treat and ultimately eliminate Alzheimer’s disease. Since 1985, its expert staff has been offering compassionate guidance to those affected through every stage of the disease. Its services help people create the best quality of life for those facing a dementia diagnosis. Visit www.alzwisc.org for more information.

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