Making Communities and Future Professionals More Dementia Friendly

“I had never considered working with older adults because I thought it would be sad and depressing, but now I have completely changed my mind.”

That was the impact on one University of Wisconsin–Madison undergraduate of volunteering with the Music and Memory Program, as part of her independent study with the School of Nursing’s Center for Aging Research and Education (CARE).

Music and Memory provides people experiencing memory loss with personalized playlists of music from their young adulthood. The approach, movingly portrayed in the documentary “Alive Inside,” has been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety and agitation. In Wisconsin, 250 nursing homes have been certified in Music and Memory, and state and tribal leaders are promoting the program’s use in other settings.

Yet Music and Memory is just one way in which CARE is connecting future professionals with dementia-friendly community efforts. Over the past two years, CARE has worked with a dozen organizations and agencies, to help students understand the importance of community supports to people living with dementia and their caregivers.

Encouraging a future social worker to pursue a career in aging is simply icing on the cake.

Final Presentations by Independent Study StudentsIn 2014 and early 2015, CARE involved nursing, social work, and human development and family studies students with the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition. The students helped plan and conduct outreach for two April 2015 town hall meetings in Watertown. (The School of Nursing previously reported on these efforts.)

The town halls generated new outreach ideas, leading students to design postcards for displays in doctors’ offices and other public spaces that residents can use to connect with the Watertown Dementia Awareness Coalition.

During the fall 2015 semester, CARE recruited additional nursing, social work, biology and psychology students, for independent study paired with community-based learning. These students volunteered with Music and Memory Programs at Madison-area nursing homes, as they learned about dementia and person-centered care through readings and group discussions.

Both students and community partners raved about the experience.

One nursing home contact said, “I know that the time [the student] is spending with residents is very valuable. It is great to have a volunteer dedicated to the Music and Memory Program, as I feel like we had struggled a little bit on the implementation.” Another concluded, “I encourage this program to continue in the future—tremendous help!”

Following her independent study experience, “I felt more confident,” a nursing student shared. “It helped reinforce the idea of diversity in needs. I will take more time, even when busy, and really try to make that personal connection.”

Professor Lisa Bratzke discusses “Community Supports for People with Dementia”

Another student reflected, “I learned so much from each [older adult] and appreciate the time they gave me.” A biology / pre-med student said, “I learned the value of patience and the skill of careful listening. People living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are all unique individuals who deserve to be treated with respect.”

Given these early successes, CARE wanted to involve more students. Hoping that there would be enough interest, CARE offered “Community supports for people with dementia” for the first time in spring 2016. The interdisciplinary community-based learning seminar filled up with 25 students in two days.

Seminar students are volunteering with one of ten community partners, on activities ranging from Music and Memory, to exercise and social engagement programs for people with early-stage dementia, to outreach and education efforts in communities of color, to dementia-friendly trainings for local businesses and first responders.

Once again, the students represent a range of disciplines, including nursing, physical therapy, social work, dietetics, neurobiology, psychology, and gender and women’s studies. By providing students with an opportunity to learn and volunteer across disciplines, CARE hopes to prepare them to provide care and services as a member of an interprofessional team. Team-based care is especially important for older adults and others with complex health and social needs, including many people living with dementia.

While the initiative is new and evolving, pre/post survey results suggest that the community-based learning approach has improved students’ knowledge of dementia as well as their social comfort with people living with dementia.

–Diane Farsetta