"What side would you like with that, ma'am?"
Her words hang in the air. The waitress doesn't know my sister has Alzheimer's. I wait. I know Carrie wants the baked potato. She has heard the question and is trying to process it. The waitress, patient and kind, is beginning to glance at her other tables.
"Carrie," I say softly, "Would you like the baked potato or the squash casserole?" She makes her choice easily now and I can see the relief in her face. Later she will need to use the restroom. I spot the doors in the back corner. One has a hen on it and the other one has a rooster on it. This is clever and fun, but Carrie won't know which door leads to the ladies room. I make a mental note that we need to go together. I'll giggle about how I need to reapply my bright pink lipstick and lead the way to the door with the hen.
I didn't used to have to strategize our time together, of course. But increasingly, our visits to restaurants, the bank, or the pharmacy are tinged with tension. I find myself wishing I had some sort of mental telepathy so the bank tellers would know Carrie is not beligerent or disinterested. She just has Alzheimer's.
Every 65 seconds someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. As the population ages rapidly, the incidence of dementia is expected to increase. In 2014, there were 5 million people in the U.S. with dementia. The CDC estimates that by 2060, that number will grow to 13.9 million. They're not all clustered in nursing homes being cared for by specialists. In fact, most of them live within the same community the rest of us do, ordering the same sides and pushing open the same restroom doors. We need to make it easier for them, their caregivers, and all the people they interact with. We need lunches that end in laughter instead of frustration.
Fortunately, a dementia-friendly movement is underway that raises awareness about people living with dementia and offers valuable tips about how to communicate with them. It's all about starting small conversations with friends, family members and colleagues that can lead to big changes.
Interested in learning how you can be a catalyst for change? Join our Dementia Friends Information Session in Lexington on May 22. Or consider becoming a Dementia Friends Champion so you can faciliate Dementia Friends Information Sessions near you. If these dates and locations aren't convenient, let us know you'd like to hear about the next one.
Together, we can create a dementia-friendly community that's stronger for all of us.