Taking a cue from River Forest, Oak Park has pledged to become more welcoming and accessible to people with dementia and their caregivers. Dementia Friendly America, a national network helping communities become better equipped to handle the disease, outlined a four-step process to become dementia friendly. 

Oak Park completed the first step in becoming dementia-friendly in an Oct. 17 community meeting, where local leaders, medical experts and dementia caregivers educated attendees on dementia and the implications it has on communities.

“Dementia touches all of us in one way or another,” said Pamela Mahn, director of Senior Services of Oak Park and River Forest Townships. “I am excited for our community to step up and be an example for equity, inclusion, access, and awareness in addressing the needs in our community.”

According to the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures report, an estimated 220,000 people in Illinois have Alzheimer’s-related dementia. By 2025, that same report predicted that number would increase to 260,000. Other causes of dementia include Parkinson’s disease, HIV, traumatic brain injuries and more.   

Less than a year ago, River Forest successfully achieved recognition as a dementia-friendly community by Dementia Friendly Illinois, a regional subset of Dementia Friendly America. River Forest President Cathy Adduci couldn’t remember total financial cost of the process, just that it was very “minimal.”  

“Whatever it is, the benefits outweigh it,” said Adduci. “There are many benefits to becoming dementia-friendly.”

River Forest police and fire departments received and continue to receive dementia-related training to identify and interact with people who have dementia. Police officers and firefighters also underwent dementia simulation. 

In the simulation, participants put on special earphones and goggles, then are given a list of tasks to complete. 

“I didn’t hear half of what I was supposed to do,” said River Forest Fire Chief Kurt Bohlmann. “I basically just sat down because I didn’t know what to do.” 

The police department also implemented an ID bracelet program, like Oak Park’s, intended to give officers a way to quickly locate necessary information to help residents with dementia, disabilities, medical conditions or special needs in emergency situations.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that we have some really great minds here locally in our backyard,” said social gerontologist Lydia Manning, who helped coordinate River Forest’s process to become dementia-friendly and created the slideshow used at the Oct. 17 meeting and a similar one held in River Forest. 

Manning is a faculty member at Concordia University’s Center for Gerontology.  

According to Manning, Dr. Raj Shah, who facilitated both the Oak Park and River Forest meetings, is making great strides in dementia research at Rush Oak Park Hospital. 

Part of the process in becoming dementia-friendly is getting the community involved. Dementia Friendly Illinois offers training for businesses to make the environment more conducive for people with cognitive impairments, as well as how to interact with them.

In Oak Park, some organizations are already offering dementia-friendly activities. Oak Park Township holds a monthly “memory café,” where people with dementia and their caregivers can meet, eat and socialize in a welcoming and safe environment. 

Sounds Good! Choir, which meets in the Nineteenth Century Club, has an offshoot called Good Memories Choir, which is specifically designed for people with dementia and their caregivers. People who participate in Good Memories Choir sing familiar, upbeat songs. All levels of musical ability are welcomed. Good Memories meets in Evanston and Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. The program also offers needs-based scholarships. 

Manning believes Oak Park is “well-positioned” to become dementia-friendly, but for communities to really live up to that moniker, there needs to be a “multi-level participatory model.”

“For these movements to be truly successful, not just a designation of paper, but a community that is truly operating under a dementia friendly paradigm and model, you do have to have all community sectors involved, and people living with dementia and their care partners,” Manning said. “It just means everybody’s pitching in.” 

This article has been updated to specify where Good Memories Choir meets.

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