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Rethinking Policing: Valley communities work together to assist senior citizens with dementia

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Posted at 4:22 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 23:24:53-04

TEMPE, AZ — Several Arizona cities train first responders, city workers, business owners, and neighborhood leaders on how to identify if someone has dementia and in order to help senior citizens to live better in our communities.

Tempe was one of the first cities in the nation to become a dementia-friendly community. Surprise, Mesa, Scottsdale, Phoenix, and most recently, Glendale, have also signed up.

A dementia-friendly community is a village, town, city, or county that is informed, safe, and respectful of individuals with dementia, their families, and caregivers, according to Dementia Friendly America. The communities provide support options that foster quality of life for people who have this disease.

Former Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell spearheaded the local dementia program. His mother, Marianne, had Alzheimer's disease, and she died two years ago.

"There's a lot of aging in place in our communities, which you see throughout our city," Mitchell said.

At least 150,000 Arizonans already have Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia.

Our state has the fastest-growing population of people with dementia in the country, and 70% of people with the disease live at home, not in a care facility, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Tempe's first step in becoming dementia-friendly involved training first responders.

"If someone appears to be disoriented I ask them, 'What is your name? Where do you live? My name is Natalie,'" said Tempe Det. Natalie Barela, who attended the training.

She explained how her approach is simple and compassionate, and she said it was important to take your time when investigating a potential crime involving someone who has cognitive impairment.

"We really have to take a deeper dive into the whole thing," Barela said. "If it's shoplifting, do they understand that shoplifting is wrong? Do they understand that maybe a family member's aggression is due to dementia or some sort of cognitive impairment, that, that may be out of their control?"


The ABC15 Investigators recently reported on a Glendale family upset that police arrested and jailedtheir 81-year-old father, Sam Thomas, accusing him of repeatedly trespassing outside his favorite coffee shop. A nurse practitioner had previously diagnosed Thomas with dementia, and a judge later found him incompetent to stand trial due to his condition.

A Glendale police spokesman admitted the officers were frustrated that Thomas kept returning to the shopping center where he was banned, but police officers claim they were unaware of Thomas's cognitive impairment. One of the arresting officers later joked about whether Thomas defecated in his adult diaper on his way to jail.

Several officers in Loveland, CO, are no longer with that department after they laughed at the body camera footage of the violent arrest of a 73-year-old woman with dementia.

Karen Garner was arrested last summer after being accused of shoplifting at a Walmart. She was left with multiple injuries, including a broken bone and dislocated shoulder, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Garner's behalf.

The Alzheimer's Association provides free online training that any police officer can use to better identify people with cognitive impairment and help deescalate a situation.

Dementia educators say the preferred police response, if a suspect has dementia, is to find a safe alternative to jail, most likely taking the person home or to a hospital.


Tempe also hosts memory café events where people with dementia and their caregivers can find socializing and support. Tempe switched to virtual cafés last year, due to the COVID pandemic. The city also offers a free monthly lecture series on dementia topics. The next lecture is on June 9.

The Dementia Friendly Tempe program branches out to provide training for businesses, health care facilities, faith communities, and neighborhood groups.

"To become a Dementia Friend, you go through a training program, and there are volunteers that train throughout the city," Mitchell said.

John Linda, a Dementia Friends Champion, does some of the training. He explained assistance can be small gestures that anyone can do.

"Say you're a Costco or some restaurants and say, 'Okay, now here's either the menu or the board. What would you like as a snack?'" Linda said "For people with dementia, that is way too much to process. Again, to make it simpler, 'Would you like a hotdog or slice of pizza?'"

"These are communities where people living with dementia and their family members, particularly their care partners, are welcomed," Jan Dougherty, a dementia care consultant, said. "They're understood, and they're supported so that they can live well within their community."

For more information on services and support for people with dementia, their caregivers, and families, call the Alzheimer's Association Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.

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