Jeff describes feeling like he walked into the doctor’s office one person and walked out someone entirely different. He says he went in a 56-year-old self-employed businessman, husband and father and he came out an Alzheimer’s patient.

“We sat in the car for almost an hour. We cried some, but mostly we just sat,” Jeff’s wife Cindy says. “It was like all our plans, our life, came to a crashing halt with that one word. Alzheimer’s.”

When Jeff first started exhibiting signs of memory impairment, Cindy says they shrugged it off to stress and an unwelcome but natural part of getting older.

While memory can change as you grow older, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are not a part of normal aging. Dementia is caused by a number of diseases that affect the brain. The most common is Alzheimer's, but diseases also include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and Pick's disease and more.

Alzheimer's slowly destroys an individual's memory, judgment, cognition, learning, and eventually ability to function. Prevalence of the disease is on the rise. An estimated 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease according to a 2017 Alzheimer’s Association report.

Alzheimer’s disease is the second most feared diagnosis among adults age 55 and older, second only to cancer, according to a MetLife Foundation study. In a similar study conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society, almost two-thirds (62%) of people surveyed felt a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia would mean their life was over.

Dementia Friends is a global initiative working to change people’s perceptions of dementia.

Developed by the Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom, Dementia Friends was launched to tackle the stigma and lack of understanding that often results in people with the condition experiencing unnecessary levels of loneliness and social exclusion. It’s an effort spreading around the world.

Dementia Friends America, co-chaired by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, was launched in early 2017 and is being spearheaded in Michigan through Region 8 Area Agency on Aging in Grand Rapids.

Dementia Friends America works to raise awareness about the disease and help people understand how they can take small steps to support people living with dementia.  The effort aims to reduce fear and avoidance, and ensure people living with dementia are included and supported. The program accomplishes this via an online training that involves watching a series of short videos and committing to take action.

The videos are short vignettes illustrating how you can be supportive of people with dementia you encounter throughout the community. Some examples include the grocery store, bank, restaurants, the library and pharmacy. There’s also information for first responders and other professionals. The videos provide quick takeaways that are easy to put into practice in your everyday life.

You can help people in our community who are living with dementia and their families by becoming a Dementia Friend. Visit dementiafriendsusa.org/become-friend to learn simple actions you can take to make your community one where people living with dementia are valued and supported in helpful ways. After watching at least three of the videos and committing to take action, you’ll receive a certificate indicating your commitment to being a “Dementia Friend”.

Jeff received the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease nearly two years ago. Since then, he and his family and friends have learned to adjust and adapt to Jeff’s changing abilities and needs. With the support of those family and friends, Jeff continues to live a quality life in his own home and community.

“I want people to know the diagnosis isn’t the person, and the person isn’t the diagnosis,” Cindy says. “There is life after hearing the word [Alzheimer’s] that stopped us in our tracks. A different life than we planned but a good one. One that requires adjustment and accommodation but with compassion and understanding, one that Jeff can live as a person who happens to have Alzheimer’s disease, not just as the Alzheimer’s patient he felt he morphed into after that first doctor’s appointment.”

If you know someone who has dementia or is caring for someone with the disease, experts at the Info-Line for Aging and Disability can help connect you to an array of information, support and services for both the person living with dementia and their care partners. Call (800) 654-2810 to learn more.