News →

Virginia Communities Seek Ways To Become Dementia-Friendly

Salisbury Presbyterian Church recently formed a chorus called “Joyful Voices” for people with dementia and their caregivers.
Salisbury Presbyterian Church recently formed a chorus called “Joyful Voices” for people with dementia and their caregivers. Their first concert is in December. (Photo C. Fishburne) Charles Fishburne/WCVE

A growing number of communities are developing programs and physical spaces that give people with dementia and their caregivers opportunities to engage. As localities in Virginia begin to explore these efforts, WCVE’s Charles Fishburne has more for Virginia Currents about out what “dementia friendly” is and how it benefits families.



Mechanicsville Drug Store has had its own version of “dementia-friendly” since it began in 1957 serving friends and neighbors.


Pharmacist Tommy Thompson has learned over the years to provide information, understanding and support.

Tommy Thompson: You know something is wrong.

He says he is asked about it sometimes twice a day. 

Thompson:  I have had some really good customers, really good friends who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and come in in tears.

There is still stigma, and fear.

Thompson:  I’ve had doctors come to me and say you know that I’ve got a problem and call me down the aisle and I think, they’ve got some cancer diagnosis or something because they don’t want anybody to hear and they say I know I’m slipping.

People feel comfortable talking with Thompson because he has built relationships and learned to provide for their special needs, with prescriptions, equipment and support over time. But time has become more critical.  The CDC says Alzheimer’s cases will double to nearly 14 million by 2060 and Melissa Andrews of Dementia Friends Virginia says we need those relationships everywhere and we need them now.

Melissa Andrews: You look at banks, you look at grocery stores, first responders, emergency room professionals.  These are folks that are highly trained, highly skilled, but perhaps don’t know how to interact with somebody who has dementia.”

Andrews (at training): Welcome to our second Dementia Friends Champions training…”

Dementia Friends is part of a global movement that is trying to change the way we all think, act and talk about dementia.

Andrews (at training): Dementia-Friendly Communities are popping up across the country and we were thrilled to put Virginia on the map.

They begin with a one-hour presentation that teaches volunteers five key facts:

Andrews: Dementia is not a normal part of aging.  Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain. Dementia is not just about having memory problems.  It is possible to have a good quality of life with dementia. And there is more to the person than the dementia.

Dementia Friendly America grew from a program in Minnesota and the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, into 48 “communities” in 36 states, including Herndon in Virginia and a half-dozen more in planning stages.

Andrews: We may be hitting it at a time there is a tipping point.  And maybe if we had started five years ago, that might not have been the case.

But building a dementia-friendly community takes work and this Dementia Friends session is training  35 volunteers to inform people about the disease.  This includes churches, support groups, government services, clinics, primary care physicians, restaurants and more. Dementia Friendly America talks about the importance of lobbying for public policy and more favorable insurance policies and aide for caregivers.  And they encourage socialization at memory café’s theater groups and choruses.

(Joyful Voices Choir)

They have done just that at Salisbury Presbyterian Church which formed a chorus called “Joyful Voices” in September.  Mark Patterson is the churches’ Director of Music.

Mark Patterson: This is about having something joyful for folks who are dealing with the diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.  It is for both people.  And both the caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s get a whole lot of positive out of that. 

There are about three dozen here, people dealing with dementia and their caregivers and everybody is encouraged to sing.

Patterson: It’s not treating them like a child.  It’s not treating them, talking down to them, but we are partnering with them and finding out how to accommodate them.

Jim Smith comes with his wife of 62 years.  And he watches as she sings with the chorus.

Jim Smith: Well, she realizes she doesn’t have a lot in the future for her. She’s been in a choir for 40 years, almost all her life, and this is the one thing that makes her smile, makes her happy.  And you can see it when you sit here and it makes me emotional.

The chorus and Dementia Friendly Virginia are new in the state, but both come with a message of hope and encouragement they are eager to share.

Smith: I just hope other people will hear about it and take part of it, because it is great, it’s just great.

Joyful Voices plans its first-ever concert, in December.  For Virginia Currents, I’m Charles Fishburne, WCVE News.