November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month, and as in past years, media and professional attention will focus on dementia, memory loss, and the experiences of those who live with it and their loved ones. The number of Americans living with dementia, which includes Alzheimer's disease, is growing — and, as the country ages, will continue to do so. Planners can play a key role in making sure that communities allow for the best possible quality of life for this growing population.
In the PAS Memo, "Planning for Dementia-Friendly Communities," I identify key practices that planners can use to create dementia-friendly communities. Most planners have not considered dementia, or the needs of people with dementia and their care partners, in their day-to-day work. A range of practices comprise "dementia-friendly" planning: communication with people with dementia, accessible transportation and social infrastructure, and the makeup of the built environment.
Benefits for all
An important point I think well worth highlighting is the ways in which dementia-friendly planning also benefits other older adults and people with disabilities. Part of this benefit comes from the fact that many dementia-friendly practices are forms of universal design. Everyone benefits from a targeted intervention — be it better spaces for community engagement or more places to sit along walking routes. However, many dementia-friendly practices have specific benefits for certain groups.
Dementia-friendly practices intersect with others for age-friendly communities as a whole, many of which are highlighted in PAS Report 579, Planning Aging-Supportive Communities. For example, while most older adults with dementia stop driving, many other older adults do too — and many more only drive in limited circumstances. Expanded transportation options, like the volunteer-led Bürgerbusse systems common in Germany, help older adults with and without dementia get around. Senior centers and other community facilities also link older adults without dementia with food, social services, and opportunities to socialize. Finally, significant efforts have been made to expand the pool of housing for older adults with age-related mobility limitations, as highlighted in the AARP's work on Livable Communities. People with dementia benefit especially from certain design practices that reduce the risk of falling — but so do other older adults with limited mobility or sensory perception.
Other people with disabilities are served well by these practices, too. Many of the discussions around sensory-friendly places and spaces, and for support in transportation, walkability, and housing, parallel the recommendations made in the PAS Memo, "Planning and Autism Guidelines 1.0." As a person on the autism spectrum, I have often been struck by how things that benefit people with dementia in the built environment also benefit me. One example is the provision of spaces that are not sensorily overwhelming — something that can be especially stressful for people with dementia and people on the autism spectrum alike. Other aspects, such as accessible wayfinding with words and images and clearly visible landmarks in the urban fabric, benefit many people with cognitive disabilities — some of whom are also more likely to develop dementia in old age.
Engage and explore
So, where does one start? Building a dementia-friendly community is a team effort, and everyone can start by learning how to be a better advocate and support for their neighbors with dementia. Dementia-Friendly America offers free training videos and resource guides that teach methods for dementia-friendly communication and etiquette. Dementia-friendly groups exist around the country, too, and often offer local workshops, training, and events. These efforts can jump-start ideas and plans to make a community more dementia-friendly. Attend a group or workshop, watch a video, or review a guide — and see what lessons or thoughts for a more accessible community follow.
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About the Author
Jonathan Paul Katz holds a master of community planning degree from the University of Maryland–College Park, where he focused on planning for disabled and aging communities. Before his studies, he worked for a New York City government agency on accessible communications. He currently works for the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. This blog post and the related PAS Memo article are separate from his employment.