By Holly Fisher
Last October, Edwina Hoyle traveled to Washington, D.C., to explain to the AARP National Policy Council how her organization is working to make Hilton Head a dementia-friendly community. Hoyle is the executive director of Memory Matters, a nonprofit that provides Alzheimer’s and dementia day care programs, support services and education.
In 2015, Memory Matters launched the Purple Angel Project, providing free training to businesses on how to better serve customers with dementia. Once a firm completes the one-hour training, it receives a window decal indicating that it is a dementia-friendly business.
Last year, 52 business owners and about 1,100 employees in the Hilton Head area went through the training. Memory Matters’ goal is to train both business operators and workers so they understand dementia and how they can provide better service to the growing population of Americans with it.
Memory Matters also hosts a 10-week class on overall brain health called Brain Boosters—open to anyone—and Connections, a two-year-old program for those with early symptoms of memory loss who aren’t yet ready for a day care program.
“Yes, we’re caring for people with dementia and providing resources to families,” Hoyle said. “But how can we help people sooner? What can people do to maintain a healthy brain or slow down the progression of dementia?”
Janet E. Porter, a Hilton Head resident and member of the national AARP board of directors, learned about Memory Matters and invited Hoyle to share her nonprofit’s work with AARP. Porter was part of the National Policy Council committee tasked with looking at ways AARP might be more engaged with brain health initiatives.
“AARP is developing policies and services to support brain health,” Porter said. Dementia and concerns about brain health are prevalent among AARP members, making it clearly within the organization’s mission, she added.
Porter stresses the importance of partnerships to bring attention to brain health. Those partnerships are forming in South Carolina: Researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina have developed the South Carolina Healthy Brain Research Network with funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What really helps?
Daniela Friedman, an associate professor and lead researcher for the project, said teaming up with organizations around the state like AARP South Carolina is a key component of this research network. Together they can host forums, disseminate evidence-based information and work with health care providers to ensure that patients receive resources about maintaining a healthy brain.
People’s perceptions of brain health, along with the media’s presentation of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, aren’t always based on science, Friedman said. For example, many people think doing crossword puzzles keeps their brain healthy, but there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that theory.
A better message is to maintain a healthy diet, do regular physical activity—both cardio and strength training—and stay socially engaged, Friedman said.
The message is that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, said Teresa Arnold, AARP South Carolina state director.
“My husband, sister and I have a game: ‘Have you had your seven fruits and vegetables today?’ When you start counting, you realize maybe you don’t eat as much as you should.”
Being an advocate for healthy living is critical in a state where Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death.
“We want to make sure all of our members 50-plus get that message,” Arnold said.
AARP members can learn more about brain health by participating in a telephone town hall featuring world-class experts on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 6:45 p.m. You must register your phone number in advance to be sure to be called. To register, go to vekeo.com/aarpbh or call 866-389-5655 toll-free.
Holly Fisher is a writer living in Charleston, S.C.