Effort started to make ‘dementia-friendly’ community

Published 8:59 pm Friday, July 30, 2021

The Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, partnering with several other organizations in the county, have started a new initiative aimed at supporting individuals with dementia and their care partners.

The chamber hosted a kick-off meeting earlier this month at Wedgewood Cove, sharing the goal to become a “Dementia-Friendly Freeborn County” with the help of a $2,500 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Area Agency on Aging.

Chamber Executive Director Shari Jenson said when she first started in her position last June, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force and she began reviewing chamber benefits to see which made sense and which might need to be adjusted to best serve members.

She said the topic of mental health kept coming up, so the chamber decided to start a mental health committee, which focused first on employee mental health and then has since resolved into employee resiliency and now community resiliency. It is open to anyone, not just chamber members.

In May during Mental Health Awareness Month, she said discussion about dementia came up.

Albert Lean Jean Eaton, who is a board member with the Southeastern Minnesota Area Agency on Aging, said a few community members, including herself, got trained as dementia friends champions through the agency, and they are looking for others who may be interested in receiving the training.

Eaton said they started looking at what other communities have done to support those people with dementia and their caregivers, including Pine Island, where Marie Hlava, another trained dementia friends champion and SEMAAA board member, has implemented many programs there that could be examples for Albert Lea.

Hlava said she formerly owned a coffee shop and helped start a memory cafe that met once a month for one or two hours where people could get together and talk who are impacted by dementia, whether it is the individual themselves or the caregivers. After she sold her coffee shop in 2017, they moved the memory cafe to the senior center.

They have also hosted meetings with the senior center, fire department, churches and other partners about aging and dementia. 

Hlava also talked about spark programs and using arts with people with dementia, hosting speakers, chorus groups, community gatherings, writing workshops and what she called the Remember Project, which uses the arts to end the stigma of memory loss.

“People need patience, resources and someone to listen to them,” Hlava said.

Eaton said already in Albert Lea, they are working on the idea of memory kits, which they hope to host with the Albert Lea Public Library, where there will be kits put together with things such as puzzles, coloring books, books, and other games that a caregiver can do with a person with dementia. They would be made in three different levels.

There are a few people also interested in heading up memory cafes in the community, she said.

In an effort to be a Dementia Friendly Community, the effort will assess current community strengths and gaps concerning dementia, come up with priorities for becoming dementia-friendly and then take action on those plans in the community.

Jenson said she hoped the kickoff helped inform community leaders of the goals, what steps have already been taken and hopes for additional support and participation moving forward.

“We were thrilled to see such a great turnout and even more thrilled with the feedback we received afterwards,” she said, noting several people in attendance were interested in supporting the effort and hosting events.

Kickoff attendees included senior care center leaders, public health, pastors, community administration and others.