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**This post was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and may discuss in-person events that are not currently taking place. For more information on Dementia Friendly Nevada’s response to COVID-19, please read our update here.**
It started with a simple request: help regular customers, many of them older women, get their hair done at a downtown salon.
In rural Winnemucca, many of its 8,000 Nevada citizens have lived there for decades, so people know their neighbors, and planning decisions are made as much with a handshake as a city ordinance.
So what was the best way to help these women get their hair fixed?
Townsfolk agreed that for people living with physical and/or cognitive impairment, losing the ability to drive represents a major hit to both independence and dignity. In fact, members of a family caregiver support group for people living with dementia asked their group facilitator: “How do you take a driver’s license away without being the villain?”
That facilitator was Gini Cunningham, long respected in the city for her civic efforts as well as her understanding of aging. Cunningham also writes a long- standing column on dementia for the local paper.
As always, she sprang into action.
In September of 2015, Cunningham quickly organized a town hall meeting with a panel of ten city officials representing law enforcement, the city council, the district attorney’s office, and even the CEO of the local hospital. Thirty local citizens also attended to explore the rising challenges facing aging members of the Winnemucca community. Along with other concerns, transportation was on the front of their minds.
Cunningham, in collaboration with other interested and engaged citizens of Winnemucca, urged the city to provide the needed handicap zone for bus parking in front of the hair salon, and with approval from then-mayor Di An Putnam and the city council, they were off.
“It showed the seniors that a community cared about them,” says Putnam.
Starting from a simple desire to support elders, this grassroots effort became the first step in Winnemucca’s application to become a sanctioned AARP “age friendly community.”
Since AARP encourages cities to bring together a wide spectrum of stakeholders to work together on age-friendly initiatives, Cunningham also reached out to the local library system, various religious and civic organizations, and other influential groups.
AARP’s age-friendly guidelines list eight sectors — including housing, transportation, and health — and suggest starting with just two or three. But Cunningham had other plans; Winnemucca wanted to target all eight.
“A lot of their setup and organizational process takes more time,” says Cunningham, speaking of AARP. “We were willing to move a lot faster.”
Instead of just a handful, the town established 22 goals and within two years had either completed or made significant headway on nearly all of them — a testament to Cunningham’s determination and the small, tight-knit community’s ability to collaborate and mobilize.
Thanks to their efforts, Winnemucca now has resting benches, weekly concierge bus services, a fitness park for designed for elders, and dozens more improvements in infrastructure and community services.
Today, AARP considers Winnemucca one of the most age-friendly rural cities in the country.
Two years after that first meeting, in 2017 Cunningham and colleagues became aware of the national dementia-friendly movement and signed on as one of Dementia Friendly Nevada’s original Community Action Groups.
And they had a huge head start.
“When we implemented our dementia-friendly goals, we just laid them over our existing age-friendly ones since a lot of them are related,” says Cunningham.
There are an estimated 300-500 people living with dementia in the greater Winnemucca area, many of them living alone.
“It’s hard to say because we’re still dragging the stigma and misunderstandings of dementia out of the closet,” says Cunningham.
And just like Winnemucca’s age-friendly efforts, the city has launched its dementia-friendly efforts with astounding success.
So far, the city has completed seven Dementia Friends information sessions to help citizens better understand dementia and how to interact with people living with dementia. So far, 150 people have been trained, including crisis intervention personnel, social workers, and school counselors.
Once a month, held at local partner Humboldt General Hospital, is the one- hour informal support group, Let’s Talk About It, which welcomes questions about dementia from community members. Cunningham says this is especially important since fear and denial around dementia are so prevalent — not just in Winnemucca but everywhere. In the past, people saw her on the street and quickly veered off in another direction.
“They thought I was contagious,” she jokes. “There’s the Alzheimer’s lady! Run! Run!”
Winnemucca also introduced the WAM program — Wellness, Art and Music — which meets twice a month to engage people living with dementia while allowing their care partners respite. For two hours, participants rotate from art projects to puzzles and music then a walk or stretch “to get the blood flowing,” says Cunningham.
One of Winnemucca’s biggest successes is Music & Memory, which Cunningham helped implement after seeing the movie Alive Inside in 2015. Documenting the use of iPods in long-term care communities, the movie illuminates the power of music to rekindle both memories and a passion for life.
In response, members of the Winnemucca Pink Ladies Auxiliary bought iPods for 25 residents at a local skilled nursing facility. Next, city cheerleaders interviewed the residents about their music preferences, played snippets of various songs, and populated the iPods with the selected tunes. The facility’s activity director Robin Moore quickly discovered that this personalized music calmed residents, eased their pain, and made them happier overall.
With so many projects percolating in Winnemucca, what is its key to success?
“We have wonderful team members who deeply care,” says Cunningham of her fellow Community Action Group members.
Winnemucca is one of the rare communities that has embraced both age- friendly and dementia-friendly efforts to great effect, and has even produced the 290-page resource guide “Age- and Dementia-Friendly Winnemucca and Humboldt County.”
A group with the same name meets monthly, joining the varied organizations and activities at the intersection of aging and dementia.
“There is a concerted effort to help and provide information to seniors and all those families living with a connection to dementia,” says Cunningham.
Of the two, has its age-friendly or dementia-friendly efforts been more successful?
Cunningham happily reports the winner: “It’s a tie.”