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Janet Wiegel and Paul Rusk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin honor dementia-friendly trainees Thursday in front of the Portage Municipal Building.

More than a dozen local groups recognized outside Portage City Hall on Thursday for dementia-friendly training brought Columbia County’s running total to 37 — an impressive figure that, according to Janet Wiegel, influences people even a thousand miles from home.

Portage holds 35 of those 37 groups that have completed the training in Columbia County, training that started only two years ago. Wiegel, outreach specialist for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, said Portage has proved to be the “shining example” across Wisconsin and in far-off places.

“Portage just ran with it; I’ve never seen a community move this quickly,” Wiegel said. “People know us for this — even in Colorado. One lady found our sticker when she was visiting her mom here, she called me, and now they’ve started the movement in Colorado.

“It’s spreading quickly, and it’s phenomenal.”

Groups recognized Thursday included Portage city staff, police support staff and police volunteers, Columbia County Aging and Disability Resource Center transportation drivers, county nutrition site managers, Portage Lions Club and several others.

“The best thing I ever did was hire Janet (Wiegel),” ADAW Executive Director Paul Rusk told the crowd. “I’m very proud that Portage is a trend-setter in this area.”

“The main reason (it’s important) is there are a lot of people who come in here with dementia,” said Mayor Rick Dodd of the city staff’s training, “so it’s vital the city employees know how to handle these people when they come in.”

The training, Wiegel said, is possible because of a task force of 28 members who “made the commitment” to ensure Portage and surrounding areas are equipped to handle a disease that strikes one in eight people ages 65 to 85 and half of people older than 85. Task force volunteers help facilitate and organize training, she explained.

“We’ve had the fire chief, the mayor (Bill Tierney), realtors, caregivers, social organizations; we’ve had church groups, professionals from local facilities — a huge volume,” Wiegel said of the task force. “It’s a huge commitment in time and energy.”

Momentum has taken local task force members to a recent Aging Empowerment conference in Wisconsin Dells where they provided presentations, and in the fall, Wiegel added, Baraboo is set to become dementia friendly.

Work that’s “spreading statewide” means Portage training will slow down a bit — but that doesn’t mean the work here is done. About a dozen Portage groups have yet to be trained, Wiegel estimated, with four of them scheduled for training, including the entire Portage Fire Department.

“Other areas of Wisconsin need more attention,” Wiegel said, “but I don’t know if anything will move as easily as Portage did.”

ADAW originally told task force volunteers they would be needed only for a year to a year and a half to go through “the whole process,” but the volunteers, today, want to “keep going.”

“They know we’ve come a long way and we want to keep momentum,” Wiegel said. “The willingness of the city — in talking to others, to other communities, whoever it is that wants information — that’s been huge.

“They’re amazing, absolutely incredible. They literally walk around with the information in their pockets, and we couldn’t have done this without them or the community.”

The training

In training, Wiegel said, people learn what a person with dementia might look like — “which you can never really tell,” she added; what’s going on inside their brain; the things they might say or do; and how to help. To become certified all of a group’s leaders and 50 percent of its staff needs to be trained.

Dave Eulberg of The Mercantile — one of the businesses honored Thursday — said as the population gets older, the information in the training becomes even more valuable. “They get forgetful, and if we can recognize them and help them do what they want to do when they come into our business, I think it’s fabulous.

“Nothing took me by surprise (in training) only because I didn’t know much about it. But in the steps you can take to help (them), I think this is a wonderful program.”