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Becky Basch, Senior Planner at the  Pioneer Valley Planning Commission

Carol Constant, South Hadley Certified Dementia Practitioner

Alzheimer’s is a disease that impacts precious memories, personal relationships, family dynamics, and so much more. However, despite the personal impact that Alzheimer’s has on individuals and families, it is by no means an isolated problem. In fact, it affects nearly 6 million U.S. residents, according to the CDC, which is expected to grow to 14 million by 2060. 

As dementia impacts more people, communities must put structures in place to help people affected by the disease and those who face challenges as they age. Becky Basch, Senior Planner at the  Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and Carol Constant, South Hadley resident member, work closely with individuals and families impacted by dementia. In a recent conversation with us, Becky and Carol shared their experience and expertise on our communities’ current and future age and dementia-friendly initiatives and why they are crucial for Western Mass seniors. 

The Age and Dementia-Friendly Movement 

While it’s always been essential for communities to be accessible to aging populations, a movement began in 2015 to ensure neighborhoods across the country have the tools and ability to support people living with dementia and their caregivers. Dementia-Friendly America defines a dementia-friendly community as a municipality that is safe and respectful of those living with the disease and their families and caregivers. “DF” communities also provide supportive options, fostering the ability of those impacted by the disease to engage and thrive in day-to-day life.  

Carol emphasized that a critical component of such communities was social, physical, and emotional inclusion. She explained that the work to ensure neighborhoods are accessible and inclusive “goes beyond senior centers and into communities,” including in the physical infrastructure. In her community of South Hadley, where she serves as a Selectperson, Carol proposed intergenerational programs, parks supporting children and aging adults, and interactive programs to ensure that those impacted by dementia are not isolated.  

Becky echoed Carol’s sentiments, outlining what an aging and dementia-friendly community would look like in a perfect world. She explained, “Being an age-friendly community involves cultivating an awareness of the built environment and how to help everyone. Looking at housing, parks, benches, and bathrooms, so everyone can get out, exercise, and live the lives they want. Not everyone gets dementia but aging still affects people with dementia and those with physical disabilities.” 

Why Programs Are Critical  

Understanding the challenges and differences surrounding individuals who are aging and affected by dementia is crucial for normalizing and supporting them. Becky explained that throughout the pandemic, increased isolation led to an increase in individuals diagnosed with dementia. She elaborated, “The data show as people live longer, one-third of people over the age of 85 will have dementia.” 

Simply put, Becky said, “We’re all aging.” She continued, explaining the percentage of adults over the age of 65 was due to surpass that of people under 18 by 2035. Investing in public programming now helps communities prepare for that shift when the time comes. Resources such as housing do not appear overnight – it takes years of planning, establishing partnerships and developing new housing stock. This also is true for organizations providing assistance, such as local Councils on Aging and meal-delivery services like WMEC’s Nutrition Program. Empowering older adults to stay independent with the support of programs like these helps to ensure that they can remain an active and a contributing part of their community for as long as possible.  

How WMEC Helps  

According to Carol and Becky, WMEC local Councils on Aging and other organizations are essential for providing the connection and support older adults need and are looking for services such as nutrition programs, educational events social gatherings and care options when needed. Becky explained that social programming has become vital since the pandemic began as those facing severe isolation relied on senior centers for congregate meals. Carol added that the Savvy Caregiver Class she recently finished teaching had been entirely virtual, which was not ideal for many. “Everyone who signed up in class wanted to meet in person; people feel face-to-face is more real. One of the participants said she doesn’t have a computer and wouldn’t want to use it even if she did. They really wanted it to be in person.” 

Making a Difference 

Everyone can start by educating themselves on dementia, aging, and inclusivity. Becky said one common misconception is that people over 65 are “frail.” Creating awareness surrounding dementia and its effects on individuals can make a significant impact. Carol recalled several instances where she’d seen a lack of education surrounding the disease negatively impacting the lives of those living with dementia. She said often finding “personhood behind the dementia monster” made a significant difference. Carol added, “The biggest challenge is making sure people know about this.” 

Want to learn more about Age and Dementia-Friendly Initiatives in your community? Learn about Age-Friendly Pioneer Valley here!