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Nursing students partner with Watertown to reduce dementia stigma

April 17, 2015

Photo: Downtown Watertown, Wisconsin

Downtown Watertown, Wisconsin. UW–Madison students helped promote a series of town hall meetings sponsored by the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition to examine how the community can respond to the needs of those with dementia.

On the streets of Watertown, University of Wisconsin–Madison nursing student Kathryn Gerber is learning about dementia and how a community can help remove the stigma that follows people with memory loss.

“It’s taught me about how dementia is perceived in the community,” says Gerber, a junior interested in geriatric care.

Gerber joined with a social work student and one from human development and family studies to help promote a series of mid-April town hall meetings sponsored by the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition to examine how the community, which straddles Dodge and Jefferson counties, can respond to the needs of those with dementia.

Gerber and the other students have worked since September, leafletting and reaching out to local businesses, nursing homes and others to encourage attendance at the meetings.

“Before this experience, I knew what dementia was, but I wasn’t aware of the wider community aspects,” Gerber says. “For example, if a person with dementia goes into a business, it’s important not to overwhelm them with choices. It’s all about how you interact with them.”

The coalition’s goal is to make Watertown one of the first cities in the nation that is dementia friendly and aware by educating residents and businesses about dementia and how to support those with memory loss.

The coalition’s goal is to make Watertown one of the first cities in the nation that is dementia friendly and aware by educating residents and businesses about dementia and how to support those with memory loss.

Gerber says the community-based effort works to engage people with dementia in innovative ways, such as a monthly “Memory Café” at a local restaurant that enables dementia patients in the community to get together.

“I love how interactive it is with dementia patients,” Gerber says. “Most communities don’t make those efforts, and dementia patients feel socially isolated.”

Jan Zimmerman, administrator and nursing director at Heritage Homes Assisted Living and coordinator of the Watertown effort, says the students have been instrumental in the effort to create a community conversation.

“It’s excellent,” she says. “They’ve gone to the vast majority of businesses and got the word out among physicians and the health care community.”

Diane Farsetta, outreach specialist for the UW–Madison School of Nursing’s Center for Aging Research and Education (CARE), is coordinating student involvement in the project and helping to craft a new seminar class on the topic.

“The rates of dementia are increasing in Wisconsin. By 2035, there will be more than 200,000 people living with the disease,” says Farsetta. “It’s very devastating to the families involved. And it never helps to have a stigma attached to dementia — the disease is bad enough.”

“Two-thirds of the people living with dementia are living in the community. They’re not in a nursing home or memory care unit.”

Diane Farsetta

Farsetta says because of that stigma, those with the disease are often isolated, which can lead to further cognitive decline.

“There’s a compelling health reason to make people feel safe and welcomed in the community that they are a part of,” Farsetta says. “Two-thirds of the people living with dementia are living in the community. They’re not in a nursing home or memory care unit.”

Farsetta says the growing student interest in issues surrounding dementia led to the creation of a service-learning seminar called Community Supports for People with Dementia. The 15-student seminar, which Gerber helped create, will debut next spring.

The class will cut across disciplines, affording students in medicine, business, nursing, social work, public health, human ecology and pharmacy to work on dementia-related issues. CARE will facilitate independent study opportunities for students interested in dementia-friendly community efforts in the lead-up to the class.

Zimmerman says the class and the students’ volunteer efforts are important to spreading the understanding of dementia and how to care for those who live with it.

“Education is so important. There are even health care workers who are afraid to work with dementia patients, because they don’t understand them and the disease,” Zimmerman says. “Maybe by taking that one class, students will be inspired to create important caregiving innovations.”

The Watertown project is similar to efforts in other Wisconsin communities, notably in Appleton and Middleton.

“It’s great to see that there are multiple efforts across the state, and I hope it can continue to spread,” Gerber says. “Because the prevalance of dementia and Alzheimer’s is growing, too.”

—Mary Anderson