December 17. 2017 8:37PM

Portsmouth becomes NH's first 'Dementia Friendly' community

New Hampshire Union Leader

There are about 24,000 people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in New Hampshire ­— and that number doesn’t include those with other forms of dementia or the thousands the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates are living among us undiagnosed. Recognizing the growing issue of dementia in its community, Portsmouth has become the state’s first “Dementia Friendly” community. “Dementia Friendly” is a national movement aiming to train everyone from first responders to bank tellers to restaurant servers how to communicate and support those with dementia in their community.

Portsmouth’s effort began with Jenna Dion, senior living program specialist at Wentworth Senior Living. She learned of the program and immediately got to work to getting community leaders on board, including the city’s Senior Coordinator Brinn Sullivan, fire Chief Steve Achilles and police Chief Robert Merner.

Her next step is to bring together a team of community and business people who can organize a plan to get business, churches, schools, transportation providers and municipal offices on board.

“We want to make it so people can live in this community with dementia without the stigma,” Dion said. “I feel like we can make a difference.”

Dion hopes other New Hampshire communities will follow suit. Neighboring Massachusetts has already earned the designation as a “Dementia Friendly” state, she said.

“We’re really excited to be a leader in this in New Hampshire,” Dion said. “For sure, it’s our goal to see this spread.”

First responders

Ronda Randazzo is manager of education programs for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter. She has been training Portsmouth police officers and firefighters as part of the effort. It’s the same training that’s provided to all recruits going through the state police academy.

“Who is more important to be trained than our first responders who are on the frontline and dealing with people in our communities who are dealing with these diagnoses,” Randazzo said. “They are encountering this in their daily work and they are really thirsty for this sort of training and background knowledge.”

Police Chief Merner said all 64 of his full-time officers as well as his auxiliary police officers will receive the two- to four-hour training by the end of next month. Firefighters are scheduled for the training next week.

The training involves recognizing the signs of dementia, which can often be confused as a person being intoxicated or impaired, Randazzo said. It covers different situations they may approach, such as a search and rescue, a disaster situation, or a case of abuse or neglect. It also involves teaching communication, whether it be verbally or through body language.

“There are nuances that come into play that could diffuse a situation or escalate a situation,” Randazzo said.

Merner said he received similar training while working for Seattle police. He said it’s important training that can help not only the officers, but those living with dementia.

“It’s so important to learn how to respond to people with cognitive impairment and dementia

and having a community awareness,” Merner said. “It’s not only about having the training, but the partnerships we are forming with those caregivers. When we do that, it creates a better experience for them, for everyone involved.”

Community training

Randazzo said it’s estimated that 36 percent of those with Alzheimer’s are living at home and that does not include those living with other dementias.

Bill Hensen, CEO and president of Wentworth Senior Living, said with more baby boomers coming of age, the numbers of those with dementia are only going to increase.

“Significant education is needed as this disease becomes more widespread,” Hensen said. “Communities need to be better prepared for it.”

The hope is to train people in business and the community how to support people with dementia, whether it be teaching a grocery clerk how to talk to a woman who repeatedly asks where the bread aisle is or restaurants offering dementia-friendly menus and calm areas to sit or ensuring banks have emergency contacts for customers who may come in and try to withdraw large amounts of cash.

“It’s about making sure there is support so people with dementia can live in their community comfortably and with dignity,” Dion said.

Randazzo said with this type of training, it can happen.

“People can thrive and live successfully and stay in their homes for as long as possible,” Randazzo said. “It’s very much a community-based approach.”

Spreading the help

Dion said this is not just an issue for the elderly. She said there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people under the age of 65 being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“It just keeps happening, Dion said.

Hensen is confident that the work in Portsmouth will spread to other communities across New Hampshire.

“There is virtually no one who hasn’t been touched by this,” he said. “So many people understand the need and want to help.”

The Alzheimer’s Association offers this training to all communities, whether or not they are “Dementia Friendly” communities. For more information, call 1(800)272-3900.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at or (603) 206-7739. See more at This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.