In a room full of people, Robert felt alone.
Dark-tinted glasses squeezed his vision down to two small circles, headphones pushed random sounds into his brain and thick cotton gloves made performing simple tasks difficult.
Robert Rankin, who works at the Summerglen Branch of the Fort Worth Public Library, was among staff members who experienced a recent “Dementia Live” demonstration conducted by nonprofit Dementia Friendly Fort Worth. Accommodating people with dementia is a growing need as the population ages; the number of over-65 residents is expected to represent the majority of the U.S. population by 2030.
Dementia is defined as a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes and impaired reasoning. The term applies to more than 100 recognized forms of memory loss, with Alzheimer’s capturing the lion’s share of the discussion. Dementia is not necessarily forgetting where you put your car keys, but it is about being unable to complete routine daily tasks.
After the demonstration, others said they did not even hear the instructions they were given. As a result, most simply sat and waited.
“I was lost and confused,” said Adult Services Manager Jana Hill. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I saw Robert doing something, but I felt isolated.”
Minerva Gates, with the library’s Early Childhood Matters program, had a similar experience. “I was scared, I was confused,” she said. “With the sensory overload, I was overwhelmed, isolated and anxious.”
Gail Snider, program coordinator for Dementia Friendly Fort Worth, said the library employees’ feelings are similar to what people with dementia experience every day.
The demonstration featured a list of five tasks the participants were asked to attempt, such as filling out a library card application. Snider said that even tasks most take for granted can become difficult, but breaking down a process into steps can help.
“They may need more help than a regular patron,” she said. “It requires much more work on their behalf.”
Libraries already have an advantage when it comes to helping the public. In fact, one of the Fort Worth Public Library’s main goals is to strengthen public engagement.
“Libraries are known for customer service,” Snider said. “We have to go that extra step to help (those with dementia) so they can be successful.”
If someone cannot hear well, they sometimes are able to read lips, so it is important to be within a person’s field of sight, Snider said. Also, in the case of a person’s diminished peripheral vision, it’s best to approach someone from the front so they won’t be startled.
Further steps to help library patrons with dementia might be to provide a quiet space for them, and having patience to allow them time to understand a process. Sometimes it takes gentle investigating to understand why a person with dementia is behaving a certain way, often sparked by an unmet need that they cannot articulate.
Mary Poole, RN and Dementia Program director for Christian Care Communities and Services, said it is key to treat those with dementia like we treat everyone else. But it’s also important to note that dementia itself isn’t a given with advanced age.
“Dementia is not a normal part of aging, dementia is neurological damage,” Poole said. “We can have conversations with people in the early stages to find out how it feels.”
A healthy diet, regular exercise and continued social activity could delay the onset of dementia, she said, although it will not prevent the disorder. She said the exact cause has not been pinpointed.
The social activity people experience while out and about is important, and public gathering places are a crucial part in that process. “The library could be a touchstone for people with dementia,” Poole said.
Snider agreed, and said making public buildings and businesses more welcoming for people with dementia goes a long way in reducing the stigma.
“The longer (people with dementia) can be part of what’s going on in the community, the longer they can be successful,” she said.
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