More than 20,000 Montanans over the age of 65 currently have dementia. This number is expected to increase to 27,000 by 2025. Dementia is a term used to describe a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is not a specific disease, but a range of symptoms.

While Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 85 percent of dementias, there are other types including vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, traumatic brain injury-related dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia and more.

Dementia, regardless of type, frequently is associated with stigma. Too often, the stigma is accepted by both the individual with dementia as well as the community at large. Upon receiving the diagnosis, individuals may believe that life is over for them. People who have lived productive, competent lives may at first wish to isolate, feeling embarrassed by their loss of cognitive function. Friends, upon learning about the diagnosis, may find it difficult to relate to their friends as they once did.

Misconceptions may also mar the receipt of a dementia diagnosis. One of the most destructive is that there is nothing to be done for dementia once a person has it. On the contrary, although dementia is a progressive disease, there is much that can be done, including: renewing commitments to staying as intellectually, socially and physically active as possible; taking steps to slow dementia’s progression; putting affairs in order; learning strategies to compensate for memory loss in the early stages; reaching out to others with the diagnoses to share, learn and redefine changed lives.

But it takes courage and support to step outside narrowly defined boundaries of life with dementia.

One supportive possibility aligns with one of the 11 major goals found in the recently published Alzheimer’s and Dementia State Plan for Montana: to promote dementia-friendly communities. This is a relatively new movement that has seen success both in positive community integration and decreasing health care costs.

Dementia-friendly communities are informed, safe and respectful of individuals with dementia and their families, fostering quality of life with supportive options. They empower citizens with dementia to have goals, hope and confidence to contribute to and participate in activities that are meaningful to them and others, thus setting up a win-win dynamic.

Creating a dementia-friendly community involves raising awareness, challenging stigma, increasing understanding, and providing dementia education for key community sectors, including businesses, financial and legal services, faith communities, first responders, housing, transportation, the health care network, and city/county agencies and officials.

To learn more about dementia-friendly communities, the Missoula Coalition on Aging and Disability (MCOAD) Education Committee cordially invites the public to a free evening presentation featuring two speakers who have been involved with creating dementia-friendly communities in their states.

Olivia Mastry is the executive lead for the Act on Alzheimer’s initiative and has worked for over 10 years on this thriving dementia-friendly community project in Minnesota ( Kay Wallick has 35 years of experience in social services administration and is the director of the newly developed Dementia Friendly Wyoming project (

The presentation will be Wednesday, Oct. 18, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the University of Montana Todd Building (just behind the University Center), Room 204.

Patti Holkup is a member of the MCOAD Education Committee, a volunteer group of committed citizens representing service providing sectors and current or former care partners of loved ones with dementia. For more information, call Missoula Aging Services at 728-7682.