Raising Awareness in Las Vegas

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Raising Awareness in Las VegasLas Vegas is more than just a tourist town; it’s home to everyday people who experience the same joys and sorrows as those in any American city, and that includes aging and dementia.

When Las Vegas stakeholders launched Dementia Friendly Southern Nevada Urban (DFSNU) in 2016, community surveys revealed dementia awareness was a top priority.

“We saw an education program that North Carolina was doing, and we knew about the Dementia Friends USA program, but we decided to create our own program, one we thought would be a good fit for our community,” says Susan Hirsch, a member of the DFSNU Community Action Group and a leader in outreach efforts.

A customized Las Vegas training program had to address a broad range of needs across multiple sectors. The goal was to offer information to raise awareness about dementia for businesses, faith-based organization, social services agencies, and community groups. In fact, the group hoped to reach all community members that serve and interact with persons with dementia. It also had to be mindful of the needs of tourists as Las Vegas welcomes 40 million tourists annually, including people living with dementia.

The resulting Community Awareness Training, or CAT, was designed with three initial sectors in mind, starting with business.

“In many ways our business sector has been the most challenging for us,” says Hirsch, a program manager at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Why? Because there was so much to explain. Most people living with dementia live in the community and may already be customers of local businesses. Dementia training can help businesses better serve existing customers, by enhancing their customer service practices and also attracting new customers, helping to bring value to a business as well as the community.

Next, the group created training for faith-based communities, basing the training on the template they created for businesses and swapping out examples and scenarios. And in this arena committed to service, they found traction.

Hirsch recalls an 18-member brainstorming session at a church that included suggestions for “prayer buddies” along with a variety of other great ideas. “It wasn’t just awareness,” recalls Hirsch. “It was like an epiphany.”

The third and final sector targeted social service and community organizations ranging from healthcare to housing, parks and recreation, the airport, and beyond. “We are beginning to roll this out now that we have the right tools to do so,” says Hirsch.

Creating templates for each sector proved the most time-consuming aspect of the program development, and highlighted the most effective tool of all. “When we do our training we tell lots of stories,” says Hirsch. “It’s through stories people can relate to the training.”

Hirsch tells of one couple who patronized a local restaurant for many years. Although the wife’s dementia had progressed to the point where she could no longer order for herself, the server made sure to speak directly to her, saying “That’s my favorite, too.”

Moreover, the restaurant did not have a family bathroom. So, if necessary, staff members would stand outside of one of the restrooms to ensure privacy for the couple.

“That made them feel like valued customers,” smiles Hirsch. “And that was always reflected in the tip.”

For another example, in the faith-based sector, a church may be interested in understanding ways to serve congregants with dementia and also recognize that attending services offers important respite for care partners as well.

“That’s the goal of dementia-friendly initiatives,” says Hirsch. “To help individuals and entities adapt the principles in ways that best serves their needs.”

The objectives of CAT—which is offered for free—are extensive: to provide a better understanding of dementia, to offer improved communication (such as approaching a person from the front, maintaining eye contact, and asking simple yes or no questions), to improve the physical environment (such as offering some place for a person to sit to rest), and to recognize and support care partners. In sum, to make the Las Vegas area more dementia-friendly, one presentation at a time. From the beginning, recalls Hirsch, they knew their best advocates would be people whose lives had been touched by dementia. “We are starting to have referrals from people who attended awareness presentations and help us make connections with others.” Hirsch lists a series of businesses and organizations who have participated in the training, from casinos to housing to entertainment. “Part of the awareness is creating an understanding of why dementia training would be helpful,” says Hirsch. “We’re talking about an illness so feared people don’t even want to mention the word.” Hirsch adds that Las Vegas is just getting started. “Almost everybody can do something that makes their community more dementia-friendly.” To schedule a free Community Awareness Training, contact:Susan Hirsch, hirschs@ccf.org, 702-701-7940