Service with compassion
Helping businesses understand, accommodate people with Alzheimer’s and dementia
When Nathan Vail was in high school in Logan, Utah, he spent a summer living with his great aunt. This extended sleepover wasn’t especially fun: Aunt Mary, his grandfather’s sister, had dementia.
“The family was working hard to keep her out of a nursing home,” Vail said, “and back then—this would be in the early ’90s—they didn’t really have home care like we do now.”
With her memory faded, Aunt Mary often would mistake Vail for an intruder. She’d strike him with her cane. She’d call the police. She’d sit by the front bay window, banging on the glass and yelling for passersby to save her from the stranger in her house.
“It was challenging, but it was worth it, because she got to remain there in her home,” Vail said. By contrast, Aunt Mary’s two siblings in the nursing home down the street lived out their final years sedated and secluded, he said.
Flash forward two decades. Vail and his wife, Emily, a Paradise native, operate the Butte County franchise of Home Instead Senior Care, a business providing in-home services to families with ailing elders. They’ve just launched a program that will help dementia-stricken seniors and their caregivers get out of the house for pleasant ventures.
Alzheimer’s Friendly Business Training helps local businesses cater to this specific clientele. Vail, using curriculum from Home Instead, instructs employees on the particulars of Alzheimer’s and recommends ways that their business can meet the needs of both patients and companions.
“Just like I was living with my great aunt in Logan, most of these people [with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia] have either a caregiver or a spouse who’s with them all the time, and that person is also isolated,” Vail said. “That person also needs to get their hair cut, go to the bank, go shopping—but, as you can imagine, if your spouse has Alzheimer’s, they can do things in public that are inappropriate. You’re afraid to take them out, and you can’t leave them alone, so …
“We’d like to help businesses understand what Alzheimer’s is and how they can create an environment that can accommodate people with Alzheimer’s.”
Vail will conduct the free sessions, which run 30 to 60 minutes, either at the place of business or at the Home Instead office in Chico. Businesses that complete the training for at least 10 percent of the staff receive “Alzheimer’s Friendly Business” certification, with window stickers to advertise the status.
“Really it takes just a little bit of understanding,” Vail said.
For instance, a salon can build flexibility into appointments scheduled for Alzheimer’s clients, who may stand up in the middle of a haircut or styling and demand to leave. Attempts by the stylist or companion to talk the client back into the chair can be counterproductive; understanding that this is a symptom of the condition, a better course of action may be to let the client leave and return later.
“If you know anybody who has cancer, you would never try to talk them out of having cancer because it’s a disease—they don’t have any control over the fact that they have cancer,” Vail said. “That’s what most people don’t understand about Alzheimer’s: It’s a disease; you can’t be talked out of it.”
Kimberly Andrews, a caregiver at Home Instead, understands the dimensions of Alzheimer’s both professionally and personally. Formerly a paralegal, she’s worked for the Vails for more than two years. Around 18 months ago, she found out that her elderly father has Alzheimer’s.
“He was an aeronautical engineer and had been a very intelligent person his whole entire life,” Andrews said. “Seeing him not be able to figure out things, simple things, it was very heartbreaking.”
Her dad, Lyle Davis, is now 87. He lives in Arizona with Andrews’ mom and a middle-aged niece. Andrews spent this summer with them, and she said she noticed his decline “in big steps—it was not subtle.” Her home-care training came into play.
“Personal is different than professional; it tugs on two different emotions within yourself,” she said. “[But] caregiving has helped quite a bit. I was used to dealing with clients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I was able to translate that over to the personal realm.”
Before coming back to Chico, she left a regimen in the Arizona household—mainly a set of jobs to help her dad feel useful.
Andrews has a Butte County client with Alzheimer’s who’s “not able to function out in public.” However, she’s starting to find businesses that accommodate seniors with memory issues. Banks may have policies for elder patrons who forget their account numbers or identification; restaurants might encourage servers to be patient with older diners who struggle with menu decisions.
“I’ve been seeing a change in commercial industry where they are starting to accommodate the clients with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” she said.
That said, there’s room for improvement, particularly amid what Vail calls “the tidal wave that is Alzheimer’s”—part of the “silver tsunami” of aging adults, with the U.S. Census Bureau anticipating national growth of 18 percent in the next five years.
“The businesses where I see the differences are the larger corporations,” Andrews said. “Hopefully the smaller businesses will come around now and see the difference. People are living longer; Alzheimer’s and dementia are a big issue … it’s going to start affecting more people as time goes by.”