Changing Care and Engaging Communities for Healthy Aging

If the discussions during CARE’s Careers in Aging Week event on April 9th could be summarized in one sentence, Suzanne Purvis did so.

“What we do to fix our communities for older people fixes it for everybody,” stressed Purvis, a clinical nurse specialist in geriatrics at UW Hospital and Clinics. The same is true of health care, she added.

Purvis, a DNP, RN and GCNS-BC, was speaking to an audience of mostly nursing students, along with social work students, practicing nurses, a physical therapist, clinical professors and researchers.  She and Jan Zimmerman, RN, clearly communicated the importance of geriatrics-related work while exemplifying the growing number of innovative approaches supporting healthy aging and aging in place.

Zimmerman is the director of nursing for Heritage Homes assisted living and memory care in Watertown, and a co-founder and president of the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition. In 2010, Wisconsin had nearly 120,000 residents who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias. By 2035, dementia is expected to affect 202,000 Wisconsinites.

The Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition began last fall with what, Zimmerman laughed, “was supposed to be a two-hour workshop.”

As she helped plan that workshop, on how to better support people with dementia, “I started thinking that we always focus on the person with dementia and their care partners, but we really haven’t looked at the community and the businesses where they live.  What’s a better way of increasing their quality of life than making them feel safe to go out in the community and remain a vital part of it?”

Today, the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition has active task forces on education and media outreach, and provides training to businesses that want to become dementia friendly. After undergoing training, businesses display a decal with a purple angel, which is an international symbol for dementia awareness. People with dementia are told that they can go to those businesses for help, if they become confused while they are out in the community.

To illustrate what a dementia-friendly business looks like, Jan Zimmerman asked, “How many times have you gone into a restaurant and they’ll say, ‘Hello, my name is Suzy.  Would you like to hear our specials today?  We have roast beef, we have chicken, we have, we have, we have.’ …  I mean, I get confused and overwhelmed.”

During the training, “We teach them that, if somebody comes in and you know that they have dementia, then you really pare it back. …  ‘Would you like something hot or cold to drink?’  ‘I’d like something hot.’  ‘Would you like tea or coffee?’”

Suzanne Purvis’ work to improve health care for older adults—including by reducing urinary tract infections and medication-related falls—has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others. But her passion, as she describes it, is the volunteer program that she designed and runs at UW Hospital and Clinics.

The STaR Program (which stands for Singing, Talking, and Reminiscing) pairs trained hospital volunteers with geriatric patients, for social interactions. The 20 current volunteers are nearly evenly split between college students and retired professionals.

That age range is important to Purvis. “I am always amazed at how many young people have never spent more than five minutes talking to an older adult, unless they happened to have had a grandparent who lived with them or nearby,” she said.  Many of her student volunteers are going into health care and related fields, so the program also “helps for the next generation, so we do better with older adults.  Our whole view in our country and the negativity around getting old” needs to be challenged.

Both Suzanne Purvis and Jan Zimmerman are challenging stereotypes about aging, in addition to ensuring quality care for older adults. CARE is proud to have helped match UW–Madison nursing students with Purvis for their independent study projects and is exploring having students develop business training materials for the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition.

Zimmerman, who wants the dementia-aware model to spread, is getting her wish. Middleton, in Dane County, recently became Wisconsin’s second dementia-friendly community. For more information or to volunteer, contact the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin (, which is leading the Middleton effort, or the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition (

As Purvis said, while describing volunteer-patient experiences, “You can’t make those magical things happen. You can just create the opportunity and hopefully things work out.”

–Diane Farsetta