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The path to creating dementia-friendly communities in Massachusetts winds through Minnesota.

Having recently received a grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation, BayPath Elder Services is spearheading an effort to create dementia-friendly communities here in Marlborough, Hudson and Northborough. That effort led BayPath Executive Director Christine Alessandro and a small contingent of key players in the project to fly to Minneapolis earlier this month.

Alessandro, Marlborough Council on Aging Director Trish Pope, Hudson COA Director Janice Long, Northborough COA Director Kelly Burke and elder law attorney Arthur Bergeron went to the site of several successfully established dementia-free communities in Minnesota on Sept. 9-11.

Minnesota has 34 dementia-friendly communities, which include complete towns, neighborhoods, faith-based communities or ethnic groups in a particular area as what defines a “community” can vary. The size and makeup of the Minnesota communities varied, but the common thread was a successful implementation of a series of steps to make them welcoming and accessible to people with dementia and their caregivers.

Over the course of parts of three days, the BayPath contingent learned all about the challenges ahead, and gained a knowledge of the process and the confidence to implement it here at home.

“It was priceless,” Alessandro said of the trip. “It was not only impactful, it was so well-thought out, so engaging, so thorough. I walked away saying, ‘I am prepared to do this.’ It was very intense.”

After arriving in Minnesota on Wednesday night, the group spent all day Thursday in workshops and half of Friday before flying home on Sept. 11. It was a short but jam-packed learning session, which dramatically changed Alessandro’s perception of the task ahead.

“I walked in with one perception of what the program was and came away with a totally different outlook,” Alessandro said. “I had looked at it like a huge umbrella and felt if you didn’t get every single person to buy in you wouldn’t be a success. What I came away with is that it really is more like a lava flow of information and engagement moving outward. You need to engage the key stakeholders and let it flow out from there. You don’t need to educate everybody all at once. You can get the information out slowly.”

BayPath is beginning that process with the search for a program coordinator who will oversee the three action teams each participating town will create. A better understanding of the project process has led to a shift in that talent search, with Alessandro noting that it is important to have someone skilled at community organizing and not just simply knowledgeable about dementia in the program coordinator role.

Once the coordinator is in place, things will move quickly. Alessandro hopes to have each town’s action team, which will be made up of key community figures, in place by Thanksgiving, and a leadership group overseeing the whole project already met for the first time last week.

“It will take 12-15 months to go through the process,” Alessandro said. “I initially thought it would take 2-3 years, but we learned that it’s better to keep it to a shorter time frame. That’s better to keep and maintain the momentum.”

The Minnesota trip gave the project plenty of momentum. The BayPath contingent witnessed first-hand dementia-friendly communities in action, while learning how to achieve the same results here while meeting with heads of several Minnesota programs and Area Agency on Aging directors, including Emily Farah-Miller of ACT on Alzheimer’s and Kathy Gilbride of the Central Minnesota Council on Aging.

“They really gave us all the tools we need to implement this,” Alessandro said.

The program will consist of four phases to create dementia-friendly communities:
1.    Convene
2.    Assess
3.    Analyze
4.    Act – the implementation plan

“We’re just starting the convene stage,” Alessandro said. “The three COA directors are creating a list of key community figures for their action teams.”

Those action teams and community commitment and involvement in general will be key to the program’s success.

“This is not a BayPath project,” Alessandro said. “It is not a COA project. It’s a grassroots project. It has to be done by the community.”

The Minnesota communities rose to the challenge. Now Alessandro and the others involved will try to take the insight, and the inspiration, they gained in Minnesota and duplicate that success here.

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