Eric Douglas Published

W.Va. Town Makes Itself Dementia Friendly

Older woman eating in a restaurant.
Restaurants in St. Albans have received training to serve people with dementia.
Hunor Kristo/AdobeStock

The town of St. Albans has designated Feb. 22 Dementia Friendly Day. The Kanawha County town is the first location in the state that has been recognized as being dementia friendly — which means many people in the town are trained in techniques to make people with dementia feel welcome. 

For his radio series, “Getting Into Their Reality: Caring For Aging Parents,” News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Walter Hall, the vice mayor of St. Albans, and one of the founders of the Dementia Friendly program, to find out what it’s all about and how it got started.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Let’s talk about making St. Albans being a dementia friendly city. What was the whole purpose of that? Why was that important to you?

Hall: Well, a dementia friendly community begins with education. And we were fortunate and blessed to have a young man in St. Albans that owns Braley Care Homes. Chris Braley reached out to me six years ago in 2016. He asked if I had an interest in helping him and St. Albans become a dementia friendly community. There are none in West Virginia. The one location at that time was in Minnesota. So it piqued my interest to become a dementia friendly community at the time.

My grandparents suffered from the illness; I had a neighbor doing the same. And so we started with one meeting between the two of us. A group is two or more, and becoming a dementia friendly community begins with a gathering. The gathering stage was gathering people to talk about the issues, and then identifying different folks in our community who could volunteer and help us make a difference. A year and a half later, we had seven or eight on our committee and the support of the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. 

Douglas: What does it mean? What is a dementia friendly city?

Hall: So, dementia friendly means that we’ve reached out to our community partners, our churches, our nonprofits, our grocery stores, our police, our fire, our city employees, public works. To become dementia friendly, we developed a plan of educating our community. The first experience we had was at the Hansford Senior Center, and it was called a hands-on experience. We invited the general public, and we had some professionals there to speak. We had doctors, nurses, hospice, Alzheimer’s, and we had a hands-on experience. And we had close to 100 folks from the community show up for that event. 

And we took them into a room, we put on the fatal vision goggles that distort your vision, we put on rubber gloves, and we put little pinto beans down in the tips of the gloves, because a dementia patient has a tingling or a numbness on the tips of their fingers. Every person that came into that room — we asked them to dress themself using color coordination. It was one thing that would put a smile on your face and love in your heart, because you really wanted to know what my family, my mom, my dad, my grandparents, my neighbor was experiencing. 

Out of that exposure, we immediately had five new members to our committee, we developed a game plan and then we took it to our first business. The Grind is a restaurant that was on McCorkle Avenue. And we trained 11 employees, the managers, and spent an hour educating them on recognizing the signs of dementia.

Douglas: Let’s talk about that training for businesses. You go into this first business, and you teach the employees how to respond if somebody comes in who’s agitated or doesn’t make sense. What are they supposed to do? How do they react to that?

Hall: As an employee, they are to recognize the signs of dementia. We have pamphlets and brochures in the restaurant to recognize the top 10 signs of dementia. To do that, as an employee, is to be more patient, be more understanding and develop eye contact with the caregiver. We have these cards with our logo and on the back of it it says, “Please be patient, my loved one is suffering from dementia.” 

Caregivers come into a dementia friendly trained business. And when the employee comes up, the first thing they are to do as a caregiver is to hand that card to the employee so that they don’t have to mention it or discuss it in front of them. Because our parents, our loved ones, can hear — they have some understanding of what you’re saying and can become quite agitated. Just hand them a little business card. 

Douglas: They walk into this restaurant, and the caregiver hands a business card to the staff. And that gives them a heads up, “Hey, this person has dementia.”

Hall: The 15 businesses that we’ve trained now, that’s been part of the process over the past five years. We started with one. Now every city employee: police, fire, public works, our water and sewer. All these folks have been trained on how to identify the signs or understand what’s going on. 

Feb. 22, 2022, last year, was the day we received the proclamation from the City of St. Albans recognizing St. Albans Alzheimer’s Day. It is always going to be on Feb. 22. And we will celebrate our first gathering and St. Albans local businesses that will be supporting our cause with 22 percent from those days receipts as a donation to the program. 

Douglas: It’s all about education.

Hall: It’s educating our community. Shops, restaurants, markets, our streets, our neighbors, everyone and in six years we have a nice following and a nice group. We all help ourselves. You have to look out for one another. And by nature, we as humans have to interact with others. And we invite you to bring your mom and dad on out. Bring your grandpa, grandma, bring them on out, go to these businesses that understand what’s going on. Make your reservation. 

You can go to Dementia Friendly St. Albans, our Facebook page, for updates on which new business we have. The most recent we did was the St. Albans Library.

Douglas: I think you told me before, at the time that you started, there was only one other city and that was in Minnesota?

Hall: I wish I could remember the town, but yeah, there was one city, one community in Minnesota, that had gone through the dementia friendly training. There’s a Dementia Friendly America that has their own set of rules. And then we have the Alzheimer’s Association which has their own set. I guess I should say guidelines of what to follow to become a dementia friendly community. And we got the support of both organizations. And we’re now recognized as a dementia friendly community and stamped and approved by each organization. 

We are still the only one with West Virginia. We are working with a gentleman in Huntington, and Nitro has begun the process and have actually already had multiple meetings. I have a feeling that Nitro will be dementia friendly as soon as they get some people on board and businesses and get them trained. Then we’re going to move on into South Charleston — Mayor Mullins has shown an interest. [Charleston] Mayor Goodwin has shown an interest.