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Creating rural Alberta’s first dementia friendly community in Innisfail

Jennifer Wood 2 Forum WEB
Jennifer Wood, the local dementia friendly community coordinator, engages participants at the Dementia Friendly Open Forum on Feb. 5 in the Innisfail Seniors Drop-In Centre at the Lundgren Centre. Johnnie Bachusky/MVP Staff

INNISFAIL – The official launch for the project to reshape the town to become the province’s first rural dementia friendly community is scheduled for March 12.

However, Jennifer Wood, the town’s new dementia friendly community coordinator, is wasting no time. Last week during the morning of Feb. 5 she hosted the first of three community forums in the Innisfail Seniors Drop-in Centre at the Lundgren Centre.

Lucille Paquette-Lohmann, the program coordinator for the Innisfail Seniors Drop-In Society, said her organization seized the opportunity to provide the space the initiative needed to get a head start on its year-long project to turn the town into a previously unheard of oasis for citizens enduring the struggles of living with dementia.

 “Of course I jumped on that because we will be dealing with dementia here,” said Paquette-Lohmann. “It is a topic we need to learn about, and I have really encouraged our membership to attend.

“I, along with some of our seniors, will be taking the training at the business end of it so that we can make sure this is a dementia friendly facility, so we will make some changes according to what they need.”

For Wood, the forums, which will include a second at Autumn Glen Lodge on Feb. 12 and a third back at the drop-in centre on Feb. 26, are opportunities to formally introduce the dementia friendly community project, and to listen to citizens’ experiences.

She’s already been told the most common challenges faced by local citizens living with dementia are the stigmas associated with its diagnosis, as well as loneliness and social isolation.

“People are self-conscious going into the community, going to the grocery store. An example of that might be that they might repeat themselves or having trouble finding something. I am hearing stories like that,” said Wood, adding there are many myths associated with the condition. “In my education you will learn that dementia is not a normal part of aging but it does disproportionally affect the older adult.”

However, there is hope with gaining more knowledge. She believes local voices will identify the strengths of the community.

“I think that is important because Innisfail as a rural community we have many strengths to build upon and those strengths will allow our community to be very successful with this initiative and with different challenges as well,” said Wood, who last month earned an endorsement for the project from town council. “I don’t want to assume that I know what people living with dementia in Innisfail need because I am a dementia friendly coordinator. I can’t assume that.

“I have to allow the project to be led by the community; to hear their concerns, to be curious about what it's like to live with dementia in Innisfail, and to understand the struggles that people living with dementia and their care partners are going through and how we can help that.”

With that strategy in place Wood said she and the local community would be able to build strong programs to provide the necessary support.

To help achieve their goal, they will implement the Brenda Strafford Foundation's Dementia-Friendly Toolkit, which has already helped two other Alberta communities become dementia friendly: the Calgary Westhills neighbourhoods of Signal Hill, Strathcona, Christie Park and Aspen, and the Town of Okotoks. Innisfail is aiming to become the province’s third dementia friendly community and the first in rural Alberta.

During the Feb. 5 community forum she introduced the project with a formal presentation on dementia education, awareness and programs. She also answered questions and received input from the 20 seniors and interested citizens who wanted more information about the year-long project.

“I thought the presentation Jennifer did to the group was very passionate, very positive,” said Coun. Jean Barclay, a longtime passionate supporter of seniors' issues.

Barclay said she hopes the audience left with a greater appreciation of Innisfail’s strong sense of inclusiveness, and most importantly, a better understanding of what it’s like to live with dementia. “I came away feeling very inspired from what I heard. I am looking forward to seeing what she can do over the next few months in the community in taking this initiative forward.”

For more information on dementia friendly community initiatives visit the Brenda Strafford Foundation website.