Policing Dementialand (aka Thoughts on Dementia-Friendly Communities)

We tend to judge an occupation by its worst members.

We meet a few doctors with poor bedside manner, and we think doctors don’t genuinely care about their patients. We have a few arrogant professors in college, so we say all professors are arrogant. We perceive one lawyer as sleazy, so they all are.

It’s a cognitive shortcut. It’s easier for our brains to put all people in an occupation into one category than evaluate them as individuals. That’s the basis of a stereotype.

There’s a problem with this, of course. The problem is that not all doctors are the same. Not all professors are the same, and not all lawyers are the same. If you see the pattern here, feel free to insert your own occupation. I bet you will agree.

It doesn’t matter what profession you are talking about…some people are better at their jobs. Some people are more ethical in their work. Some people make more mistakes. And some people just don’t pull their weight.

An ongoing conversation in our society that has been of particular interest to me relates to police officers. I’ve heard a lot of discourse in the past 15 months about cops. Obviously, much of it portrays a negative perception of cops in our country. However, I’ve also noticed a strong rebuttal and a show of appreciation for what cops do.

I’m not an expert in criminal justice, but here’s what I do know. I know that cops make mistakes, just like people in other professions make mistakes. (If you think you’ve never made a mistake in your job, you’re mistaken. Have I made mistakes in my job? Absolutely.) Because of the nature of police work, mistakes can be incredibly costly. I’m not willing to discuss issues like racial bias here, but I am willing to say that some cops are great at their jobs and others are not as great at their jobs. And that is true for every profession.

I am fortunate to have three police officers who are close to my heart. My father-in-law, Bill, has served his community for about 30 years. My friends, Jen and Shannon, are newer to the profession. All three of them care about people. All three of them are in the field because they want to make a positive difference in the community. All three of them work shifts that make them miss events with family and friends–and rarely complain. It’s an understatement to say that I admire them. In fact, I got called for jury duty and my statement of admiration for them when asked if I had any biases toward cops was probably why I didn’t get picked for the jury.

Jen sent me a late night text this summer that said, “It’s hard policing dementialand,” and we both knew that I would soon write a blog post called “Policing Dementialand.” I’ve given thought to interactions between cops and older individuals, particularly those with dementia, in the past, but Jen has given me a new perspective.

I’m proud to say that I was there to celebrate when she finished the police academy. I was proud of her when she got a job offer. I was proud of her when she passed her training period as an officer. I was even proud of her (and also bummed for her) when she jumped a fence following a K9 officer who was tracking a suspect and broke a bone in her shoulder.

However, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of her than when she told me that she found a woman with dementia who was wandering and used dementia-friendly communication techniques to figure out where she lived–even though the woman didn’t know her address. She’s also been called to the house of a woman with Alzheimer’s who thought someone had been breaking in and stealing her belongings. Jen doesn’t know the term “validation therapy” (and she doesn’t need to) but that’s what she used to deal with the situation. She even thought to remove the medication of the woman’s deceased husband from the home so she wouldn’t accidentally take it. She’s also had to negotiate drivers who likely had dementia, which is no easy task. I’ve started calling her the “dementia whisperer.”

She says it’s because she reads “this blog by this professor she knows,” and maybe that’s part of it. To be fair, she’s also been forced to listen to me ramble on and on about Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Yet, I think it’s more than that. She wants to help people and strives to be good at her job. I’m happy if my blog (and my endless talk about dementia) has helped in a small way, but she has sought out that knowledge and has been able to apply it on the fly when situations arise. If we give more cops education on dementia, I think more of them can be “dementia whisperers” like Jen.

I hear many stories of how police officers have not made sound decisions in regards to individuals with dementia. I want to make it clear that in many of these situations the cops are well-intentioned. They just aren’t educated on how to work with people who have dementia.

I hear a lot of talk about making communities more “dementia-friendly.” This means that we need to provide basic dementia education to those who serve the community. They don’t need to understand genetic components, the parts of the brain, or the (lack of) effectiveness of available drugs. They do need to understand how to approach and communicate with people who might have dementia. They need to know how to avoid making individuals with dementia agitated and anxious.

I recently did a series of trainings on dementia for area bus drivers. Many of these bus drivers transport people with dementia on a daily basis, and yet don’t have a working knowledge of dementia skills. They are asked to help people get on and off the bus, as well as take responsibility for the safety of those on the bus. Yet, we have not given them the knowledge to do this effectively. (To give you an idea of their level of knowledge, a bus driver came up to me after a training to ask if Alzheimer’s was contagious. It amazed me–and in a way impressed me–to think a guy who wasn’t sure if Alzheimer’s was contagious worked with people with Alzheimer’s regularly…or maybe he needed the paycheck that badly.)

I know a lot about dementia. I read a lot about it. I talk a lot about it. However, I only spend about three hours a week on average with people who have dementia. There are people who spend more hours a week with those who have dementia and have much less education. And that’s not a criticism of those people. We can’t expect people to have skills and knowledge we don’t teach them. That’s not fair to them. My goal is to educate our communities so they will be ready for the challenges associated with the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. We aren’t there.


Note: The Alzheimer’s Association has put together what I would consider “Cliff Notes” for law enforcement officers working with individuals who have dementia. Check it out:


And if you are within reasonable driving distance, you could probably convince me to come do a training.