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ACTing on Alzheimer's; Bemidji selected as one of 12 communities statewide to develop steps to better deal with Alzheimer's, dementia

BEMIDJI -- It is estimated 650 residents of Beltrami County have dementia.

There are 5,837 people aged 65 or older in Beltrami County, according to 2012 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, and statistics indicate one in nine people in that age group have dementia. Those ratios increase to one in three for people age 85 and older.

A newly formed action team is now working to identify strategies to help make Bemidji more dementia-friendly by becoming a more informed, safe and respectful community for people with Alzheimer's or dementia.

Bemidji has been named one of 12 action communities for ACT on Alzheimer's, a Minnesota initiative aimed at preparing the state for the impacts of Alzheimer's and dementia. ACT on Alzheimer's estimates 88,000 Minnesotans 65 years old and older have Alzheimer's -- and that number is growing.

ACT on Alzheimer's uses a four-phase process -- forming the action team, assessing the community, analyzing needs and developing a plan to implement its goals.

One regional community already has been through the process. Walker was named a pilot program two years ago. The community there had previously been designated as a dementia-friendly community through a different, but similar, program.

So Walker -- the only rural community in Minnesota to be named a pilot program for ACT for Alzheimer's -- already had much of the legwork in hand.

"With the toolkit that ACT had given us, it really was a nice transition to make," said team lead Melanie Deegan, general manager at May Creek Senior Living in Walker. "Using the ACT toolkit, we were then able to assess our community and really find out where those needs are."

Walker is now preparing for the implementation of two strategies. The first involves the creation of a resource guide, one that will be printed as a hard copy and also be made available online. It will bring together in one place all of the applicable agencies and contacts who could provide assistance for caregivers and individuals with dementia.

The second strategy is a larger, community education initiative, wherein local businesses would be educated about Alzheimer's and dementia. Businesses would then be deemed dementia-friendly and given a logo indicating management and employees have been trained in dealing with individuals who may have dementia.

Work toward the second strategy has not yet began, Deegan said, noting that as a tourist center, summertime in Walker is not the ideal time to approach local businesses about additional training or programming. That will come later in the year, when tourism slows.

She said the community is already aware of its ACT on Alzheimer's goals, thanks in large part to the more than 70 surveys and assessments done with businesses, government agencies, caregivers and individuals.

"That alone was enough to pique people's interest and get their antennas up," Deegan said.

The Walker action team, which began meeting in June 2012, has been sharing its experiences and successes, speaking with other communities and anyone interested in learning more about the program.

"That has been really nice, to give them our input and the toolkit," Deegan said. "It really doesn't matter what size your community is, it's going to work."

Bemidji's plans

The action team in Bemidji began meeting monthly this spring with participants ranging from health-care professionals to caregivers to service providers. Adult Day Services was there, as well as representatives from the faith community and Northern Safety and Security.

Northwoods Caregivers -- a nonprofit that offers services to help seniors and those with disabilities remain at home -- is coordinating the project locally after it received a grant funding the 18-month process.

The action team has been working to identify a broader selection of team members in advance of its August meeting, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bemidji Public Library. Anyone interested is encouraged to attend.

"For the most part I think that when someone is in a store or somewhere else in the community and someone finds out that they have dementia they're probably treated pretty well, but it never hurts to get more information out there," said Carol Priest, a caregiver advocate with Northwoods Caregivers.

The action team is soon moving into the assessment phase, which will likely begin in fall when businesses and individuals will be surveyed to identify community strengths, as well as any gaps.

She speculated there may be areas for improvement in keeping people in their homes longer, or for facilities more equipped to deal with advanced stages or to care for those who also have behavioral issues, as well.

"Being a relatively small community, it's hard to have everything that would be needed." she said, adding agencies and nonprofits such as Northwoods Caregivers provide assistance, but sometimes it's not enough to keep people in their own homes long-term.

Priest said she does think there may be a need for a support group, but one not geared at caregivers as much as the individuals with dementia or Alzheimer's. The memory loss support group is a good place for caregivers to find connections, but not for those with the disease.

"It's not necessarily appropriate for someone with the illness to go there because caregivers are talking about frustrations they may have or difficulties, so for the person with Alzheimer's that might be really upsetting," she said. "But people in the early stages might benefit from the support of other people who are going through that."

As news of the initiative has spread, Priest said the response has been well-received.

"It's been very positive," she said. "People don't always have the time to get involved but they're very interested in the project, they think it's a great idea."

To get involved

The action team for ACT on Alzheimer's Bemidji will next convene from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bemidji Public Library, 509 America Ave. NW.

For details, call Carol Priest at Northwoods Caregivers at 333-8265 or email

For the warning signs of Alzheimer's, see Page xx

Warning signs of Alzheimer's

For details on these signs and how they differ from normal age-related changes, offered by the Alzheimer's Association, visit

• Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as forgetting recently learned information or important dates or events.

• Challenges in planning or solving problems, such as keeping track of bills or following a recipe.

• Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work or leisure.

• Confusion with time or place.

• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.

• New problems with words in speaking or writing.

• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.

• Decreased or poor judgement.

• Withdrawal from work or social activities.

• Changes in mood and personality.