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The number of people suffering from dementia is expected to triple in the U.S. over the next 35 years, and a task force of community leaders has determined more education on the disease can’t come soon enough.

The City of Portage recently partnered with the Alzheimer and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin to create a task force that would make Portage “dementia friendly,” training people of all professions on the many factors involved with the disease.

Several area businesses and churches, 102 law enforcement officers and about half of the EMTs in Columbia County have been trained since the task force of 27 was formed in December, learning what dementia is, how to identify a person with dementia, the effect it has on people and how to help them.

“You run into a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, I wish I would have known this sooner,’ because now they know where to go for help and what to do,” said Janet Wiegel, ADAW outreach specialist for Columbia and Sauk counties. “Not many people talk about dementia. It’s become an overlooked disease.”

The nonprofit will host two open house sessions at 1 and 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Portage Public Library, a free event where members of the community can participate in the organization’s Dementia Friendly Training (DFC).

The numbers speak for themselves, Wiegel said. As baby boomers age, the number of people in the U.S. with dementia is set to jump from 5 million to 15 million by 2050. More than 116,000 people in Wisconsin have been diagnosed with dementia, and 70 percent of those people are still living at home.

“It’s huge,” Wiegel said. “The highest risk factor for dementia is age. As our community is aging, it’s going to become a lot more prevalent, so if we can educate those people now to learn how to work with people who have dementia, we’re getting ahead of the wave.”

A person dealing with someone who suffers from dementia might fall into the trap of speaking louder. But DFC training points out that loud noises can create frustration and embarrassment, leading to the individual shutting down, becoming angry or bursting into tears.

“Their response to stimulus isn’t the same as ours,” Wiegel said. “We need to be patient and we need to be respectful, and we need to slow down and reduce those distractions.

“A person with dementia interprets things differently – there’s a lot of repetition, there’s confusion, there’s fine motor loss, there’s language problems, there’s being confused about where you are.”

For communication, eye contact is key. Wiegel said research has shown that while dementia patients might not always understand what you’re saying, they can read your body language, making your positive and receptive attitude hugely important.

Another topic of the training is stimulation. People can live up to 20 years with dementia, Wiegel said, and if your body is not stimulated during that time – seeing new things, hearing new things – the disease progresses faster.

Information shared at the open house will be in the form of Powerpoint presentations, DFC training videos and the acclaimed documentary film “You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t.”

“It’s really important that people understand this disease,” Wiegel said of the program, which will include information on what actually happens to the brain of a person suffering from dementia. “Dementia really affects how we see the world.”

For more information about the open house, contact Wiegel at 742-9055.