When Officer John John of the Willimantic Police Department is dispatched with his canine partner to search for a missing person, his adrenaline begins racing and his already animated and rapid-fire way of talking amplifies.
That will be changing in some cases, however, after he attended a training on how to interact with and help people with dementia.
“I didn’t know how to approach them,” says John, who, like most officers attending the training, has had several encounters with people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. “I learned to make a better connection with the person, to lower my tone, slow it down, give simple questions and wait for an answer.
“I learned it’s also important to not get frustrated. That just makes things worse.”
Such enlightenment was precisely what Police Chief Roberto Rosado had in mind when he accepted an offer from the Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging to conduct educational sessions.
“We have a lot of public housing complexes in Willimantic and have had many calls deal for people having dementia,” Rosado says, remembering a call he was on as a patrolman involving a woman who had been out all night in a blizzard in search of milk. “They’re always in a very confused state and it’s important that the police help them, not make them more confused and upset.”
Michelle Wyman, a Hartford HealthCare Center for Healthy Aging dementia specialist, says dementia robs people of their memory and such basic skills as problem-solving and even human interaction. The challenge is that there are no physical characteristics of dementia, so people should look for behaviors such as:
- Appearing confused.
- Needing to be told repeatedly who you are.
- Providing inappropriate answers.
- Having a blank face.
- Dressing inappropriately.
Because paranoia and anxiety are heightened in people with dementia, it’s important to approach carefully to gain their trust. This includes:
- Approaching from the front, then standing to the side.
- Offering a handshake.
- Maintaining eye contact.
- Removing distractions such as lowering the police radio or turning off the flashing lights.
- Telling them what you’ll be doing step by step, giving them time to process the information.
- Speaking in a calm, low voice.
- Asking yes or no questions.
- Repeating their answers back to clarify.
Patty O’Brian, also a dementia specialist with the Center for Healthy Aging, stresses that “dementia does not take away intelligence, it takes away function,” which may make people argumentative or act impulsively without guilt or even memory of the behavior. They may shoplift or accuse others of stealing from them. Seventy percent wander, an emergency because half risk serious injury or death if not found within 24 hours.
Officer Guillermo Rivera says he saw a man walking who looked lost. The man could not give a name or address and “seemed spaced out,” Rivera says. Having a grandmother with dementia helped the officer recognize the behavior. He drove the man around for several hours hoping something would look familiar to him.
“I’m used to them not remembering who you are so I know to take it easy with them,” he says, adding that someone finally called to report the man missing. “This class is great for anyone who has never dealt with dementia before. You would never have thought this man had dementia to just look at him.”
There are 75,000 people in Connecticut living with dementia, and 175,000 caregivers. The number, O’Brian predicts, will triple by 2050. To help protect them, she and Wyman target people who might notice signs of dementia or related problems with finances or abuse.
“We spend a lot of time reaching out to grocery store clerks, bank tellers, people like that who can spot the signs of problems,” Wyman says.