A little while ago, I saw a tweet about a new program to create dementia-friendly communities. I thought this was an interesting idea, so went to read about it. I guess it’s part of this blue umbrella program that seems to be an initiative of the Alzheimer Society. The society provides training to businesses about how to give better customer service to someone who might have dementia. They can also get included in a directory of businesses who are considered dementia-friendly. Finally, they can stick a blue umbrella decal on their window to indicate they are dementia-friendly. Another part of the program involves making these pins available to people with dementia to wear and self-identify as someone with dementia.
I am totally down with all the training and getting listed in a directory. The more aware and empathetic people can be about any group of people, the better they will be, and I suspect dealing with customer service when you have trouble remembering or communicating probably feels pretty daunting, so maybe having a directory of friendly ones might be kind of nice. Having decals in windows of businesses might get people talking, and although the current generation of folks with dementia might not remember that that blue umbrella is good, eventually we might come to recognize it as much as we recognize the accessibility symbol, so future generations might benefit. The hitch in the plan, for me, comes at the self-identification pins part.
I have seen a lot of good in humanity. People have gone out of their way to help me find something or someone, and they certainly didn’t have to. So, probably most people, once they learned what that pin meant, might be super helpful. If they see a person wandering seemingly aimlessly, and they have a blue umbrella pin on, they might put the pieces together and offer some help. But I worry about the unscrupulous part of the population, and fear that people with dementia wearing these identifier pins might become really easy targets.
Think of it this way. Maybe I’m over-generalizing, but my understanding is a lot of people who are in the early stages of dementia either don’t realize they have it or don’t want to admit it. If a person is at a stage where they feel they need to self-identify, it must be pretty serious. So, imagine if that person is walking down the street and someone spots their pin, sees an opportunity and starts talking to them. Before too long, they have walked into the bank and convinced them to take out a large amount of money. Does that sound like an unlikely scenario?
I can hear a warring voice saying “a blind person’s white cane identifies them as blind, and a person with low vision might carry an ID cane to show they have low vision, and they don’t actually use that cane for a purpose other than identifying themselves as having low vision. How is that different than wearing a pin?” I have two answers to that. A full white cane actually helps the person by making sure they don’t kiss a tree or fall down some stairs or trip over something. It will help blind folks appear less blind because they’re not crashing into everything and everyone. With regards to an ID cane, it is probably closer to an umbrella pin, but the key difference is the person holding it isn’t dealing with memory and communication issues, so has more coping strategies to be able to ward off con artists.
I know we need to do something, so I don’t want to spit in the face of this program. Dementia isn’t physically visible like an artificial leg or a wheelchair, so it’s harder to spot. I get that. But do we want to make it so easy to spot that we end up sticking a “mug me” sign on people? Maybe, if you’re going to give folks a thing to carry around that is identifiable, make it serve a greater purpose for the person. Maybe the pin has a button on it that calls a trusted caregiver or family member. Then if the person gets lost, they can call home. Or, if someone sees something fishy, they might be able to get the person some help by getting them to push that pin. Just give it some greater ability to assist than “Hey, I have dementia. Do with that info what you will.”