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Dementia-friendly training comes to the workplace

DULUTH — Her feet felt heavy, her hands barely usable. The room seemed dark. If people spoke, it was in mumbles.

She knew there were things she needed to do, but somehow, she couldn’t entirely remember what.

That, fortunately, is not the ordinary experience for Julia Rulla, director of sales and marketing for Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center.

But it was, Rulla said, what she went through when on a “virtual dementia tour” provided by Peter Hafften of the Duluth-based nonprofit Age Well Arrowhead.

“When Peter came in and did the training for us, we had a whole different understanding of how to deal with our residents that have dementia,” Rulla said last week.

The eight-minute exercise actually is an advanced option beyond a basic 90-minute Dementia Friendly at Work session Hafften gladly offers to businesses, nonprofits, governmental agencies — any organization that might benefit from knowing how to respond when an individual with dementia comes through their door.

“We’re very happy to be able to provide dementia awareness training for businesses,” said Mary Bovee, executive director of Age Well Arrowhead. “(They recognize) that the clients they serve, the customers they work with and the employees within their organization can and will be impacted by dementia at some point.”

The program was set up under a two-year grant from the Minnesota Board of Aging, Bovee said, and support has been taken over by a local foundation, the Victory Fund.

“The Victory Fund board of directors got behind this 100 percent,” said Katherine Heimbach, executive director of the foundation, which is dedicated to improving health in Northeastern Minnesota. “When we did a community assessment, we saw that people didn’t understand Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We saw that education and awareness was one of the biggest needs.”

Hafften has led more than 50 trainings in the past two years and has found the demand increasing recently, he said.

“It just has to do with an aging population,” he said of the increased interest. “I mean, even just in my short time doing the trainings, businesses that I've reached out to two years ago, who said, ‘We're going to kindly decline,’ now they're calling us saying, ‘You know, we had a change in our customer base and our population, and we would like the training.’ ”

Still, a workplace might be hard-pressed to devote 90 minutes of time to a training session, Hafften realizes. So he’s flexible, offering to come at 7 a.m. if that works best, or to come over the lunch hour and bring food.

The sessions include teaching on the forms of dementia, practical tips about how to make workplaces dementia-friendly and then advice customized for the specific setting.

“It might be bringing in, like in a banking situation, a personal banker to really help them,” Hafften explained. “Do they need to withdraw all the money out of their bank account? Or have they been to the bank three or four or five times that day because they’re forgetting? … You know these are huge warning signs that they do see at banks here in Duluth.”

Banks have been among some of the most eager entities to take advantage of the training, Hafften said, naming North Shore Bank of Commerce and National Bank of Commerce as leaders in that regard.

Cindy Theien, compliance and loan review specialist for National Bank of Commerce, said it was the bank’s front-line employees who brought concerns about customers with apparent issues to managers.

Hafften “shared how we can create a safe and friendly environment for our customers and their families that are living with the impact of dementia,” Theien wrote in an email.

More than 40 employees have been trained over four sessions, she wrote, and the bank expects to add more sessions in the future.

The city of Duluth had sessions both at its Garfield Avenue training facility and at City Hall, said Angel Hohenstein, the city’s wellness coordinator.

The training not only helped front-line employees understand what to do when someone with dementia symptoms comes to them, Hohenstein said. It also gave city planners and engineers ideas for dementia-friendly adaptations as they plan infrastructure improvements.

Hafften is asked to offer the dementia awareness virtual tour less often, but Chris Jensen’s Rulla considers it vital.

“People say, ‘I’ve gone through dementia training,’ and unless you’ve gone through the virtual training, you haven’t,” she said.

The virtual training only lasts eight minutes per individual, Hafften said, but that can feel like a long time.

“We do a number of things,” he said. “We change somebody’s vision. We change the way they hear. We change the way they feel with their fingers and their feet. And then we ask them to do five tasks. Well, they have a hard time hearing, they have a hard time seeing, and the next thing you know they’re frustrated, or they’re confused or forgetful.”

Neither she nor any of her Chris Jensen colleagues got a perfect mark in the simulation, Rulla said.

Even as a place that has a memory care unit, Chris Jensen employees gained from the training, Rulla said.

“We definitely have a need for that, because it’s not something that’s common sense,” she said. “My mom had it, and too bad that I didn’t have this training before she passed a few years ago, because things would have been so different. … It just would have made it so much easier.”

To learn more

For details on Dementia Friendly at Work or other Age Well Arrowhead programs, call (218) 623-7800 or visit