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Aging agency leads dementia training for first responders

The Tuscaloosa News - 3/14/2019

March 13-- Mar. 13--Every 66 seconds, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with dementia.

There are an estimated 5 million Americans suffering from age-related dementias right now. By 2050, that total is expected to swell to 16 million.

"Who," said Kelli Kimbrell of the Area Agency on Aging for West Alabama, "is going to take care of these people?"

That was the question Kimbrell, who serves as the agency's home and community service director, posed to a group of 911 call-takers on Wednesday as part of a two-hour training session to help these first-responders in managing and dealing with dementia-related calls.

Most of the six 911 call-takers who gathered for the training session at the new Tuscaloosa County Emergency Operations Center in Northport have been on the job for a bit more than a year. Each day, dementia sufferers call the center and ask random, non-emergency questions such as the time.

For call-taker Shelby Watson, the Dementia Friendly Alabama training helped her realize that providing that answer can, sometimes, bring much needed peace to someone who needs it.

"It brings more understanding in knowing that answering that simple question can bring them calmness, as well," Watson said. "That's something big. I didn't necessarily understand why I was giving the time."

Kimbrell explained that, sometimes, all someone with dementia needs is to know someone is there.

"If they have somebody to listen to them, that improves their quality of life," she said.

Kimbrell's training, funded through a 2018 Dementia Friendly Community$10,000 mini-grant from the Central Alabama Aging Consortium, provided insights into dementia conditions that looked not only at the confusion, but also the struggles that many face to get through daily life.

She had the participants use gloves and specialized goggles to simulate what seniors with dementia can cope with, from blurred or yellowed vision to a lack of feeling or dexterity in their hands.

"The hands-on test really (helped)," said call-taker Shelley Salter.

Her colleague Natalie Nations, who has been on the job for three days, agreed.

"It would be kind of scary to think you're doing something correctly, like your medication, for instance, and then realize you can't touch it and can't see what color it is," Nations said.

And for call-taker Whitney Watson, the many forms that dementia can take was eye-opening.

"I didn't know there were so many types," Watson said. "I knew there was Alzheimer's, but I didn't know what all was under that (dementia) umbrella."

While Alzheimer's is the most common condition that causes dementia among the nation's aging population, Kimbrell explained that other conditions -- from low blood pressure to urinary tract infections -- can trigger dementia-like symptoms.

Knowing how to spot the signs and speak to someone who is confused or anxious will help toward finding a solution.

"Chaos breeds chaos," Kimbrell said.

But the insight she provided wasn't just about those who are battling the conditions. The training also looked at those tasked with caring for their friend or relative.

An estimated 75 percent of care provided to elderly or aging residents with dementia comes in the form of free care from friends or family members, said Kimbrell, who provided these and other statistics during the training session.

At times, the caregivers can be just as alarmed when seeking help, said Christie Davis, a 14-year veteran 911 call-taker.

"They can be just as hysterical as someone whose 2-year-old is missing," Davis said, adding that the training also helped her realize that she may need to ask more questions, when a caregiver calls, to ensure no further harm or alarm is caused by the responding agency.

The goal of the training is to help first-responders develop a mindset to understand the challenges someone with dementia faces each day and, when summoned, how to sympathetically offer assistance.

The training will eventually reach all first-responders in the Tuscaloosa County, as the Northport Police Department received the training last month and the Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Service set to receive it in April.

"We want everybody to be sensitive to what may be going on with (dementia) behaviors," Kimbrell said. "With the Dementia Friendly Initiative, we're hoping to get to where people with dementia are met with understanding."

For more information, go to www.westalabamaaging.org or visit the group's Facebook page at facebook.com/westalabamaaging.

Reach Jason Morton at jason.morton@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0200.

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