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Training program helps law enforcement identify, assist those suffering from dementia

Law enforcement and other first responders often come into contact with people suffering from a cognitive impairment.  While many times these people are suffering from a mental health issue or addiction, some may be suffering from dementia.  Dementia is different.

Equipped, Empowered and Enabled, LLC, an organization that provides dementia situational awareness training, has been working with law enforcement officers across the state to provide information on how to effectively identify and interact with someone suffering from dementia.

J.T. Hunter, certified dementia practitioner and co-owner of the organization, said the program hopes to help first responders including police, emergency medical personnel and firefighters, feel confident when they encounter a person with dementia and be able to leave with the best possible resolution for everyone involved.

There are no obvious physical characteristics which can easily identify someone with dementia, which could potentially lead to their confusion being mistaken as a safety threat.

“In West Virginia, there are at least 39,000 people living right now with Alzheimer’s-related dementia and we think with the police especially — if you don’t know, you don’t know — especially on the front lines in those situations where you have a split-second to make maybe a life or death decision,” Hunter said.  “We want to make sure they have the eyes to be able to recognize this person may have dementia.”

Hunter said they also bust the myth that dementia is our grandparents’ disease.  While it is seen more commonly in older people, Hunter said there are many people in their 30s, 40s and 50s living with dementia, and this type of training for law enforcement is crucial to make them aware that a younger individual may also be suffering from the disease.

Hunter and co-owner Lori McGlumphy recently provided dementia-awareness training for members of the Morgantown Police Department.

Lieutenant Chad Reyes said MPD officers were given some tips and clues on how to recognize someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Some of these clues included appearing confused and disoriented and not knowing who they are, where they are, or where they are going. 

Reyes said they were also taught different ways to handle dementia-related incidents and given tools to help them keep everyone involved calm and safe.

“I think that when [officers] encounter someone who is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s that hopefully they will have a more positive outcome,” he said. “And less likely to have any kind of escalated situation.  Maybe they will be able to de-escalate it with a more positive result.”

Hunter said a lot of the training they give officers is about “understanding that world of someone with dementia that is totally different than ours as healthy-minded people,” he said.  “So we spend a lot of time on the non-verbal, what our body language is sending.” 

According to Hunter, the world of someone with dementia is overwhelmingly non-verbal, “like 93% nonverbal” he said. “This only leaves a little bit for the words.  So it’s really not always the words, it’s the emotion behind the words, what I am conveying with my body language and tone of voice.”

First impressions are particularly important for those wearing a police uniform as certain postures combined with the uniform can send a bad message and a barrier of distrust is built before the officer even speaks.  

“We talk a lot about conveying our non-verbal and reading their non-verbal and how they are watching us, too,” Hunter said.  

Equipped, Empowered and Enabled is the first dementia situational awareness training program in West Virginia to be LEPS — law enforcement professional standards — approved, Hunter and McGlumphy said. Their goal is to make sure every department in the state receives dementia training. 

Hunter and McGlumphy will not just be offering training to officers of all levels already in the field, but will also provide training at the police academy.

“From day one, before they hit the field, they are going to get this insight and training and we think it’s going to make a world of difference for our communities and our first responders in West Virginia,” Hunter said.

“When they walk away from training we hope they are equipped with the knowledge and the understanding of what this is,” he said.  “But also more than that — empowering them with the confidence to try something that may not work, and try it again.”

For more information on Equipped, Empowered and Enabled contact McGlumphy at 304-281-5778.

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