by Daniel Gray
Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
Founded in 1983 by family caregivers around a kitchen table in Bellingham, Dementia Support Northwest has grown and developed into a key community partner, dedicated to the education and support of those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as those caregivers and family members who support and care for them.
Today DSNW continues that work, having developed and supported multiple programs new to Whatcom County, including Staying Connected classes, Project Lifesaver bracelets, and art classes for those with dementia. In addition, DSNW now supplies hundreds of hours of education and support each year, all of which is provided cost free. As the only nonprofit providing dementia-specific services in Whatcom County, DSNW maintains a unique position within the larger care and support service network.
In 2019, the Aging Well Whatcom blueprint provided a working estimate for the aging population of Whatcom County at 54,156 residents, or 24 percent of the county’s total population at that time. Within that total, 5,091 were identified as living with a cognitive impairment, almost 4,000 of those being identified as living with dementia. All of those individuals are experiencing their own personal journey with dementia, and we at DSNW sincerely believe that there are resources, information, and services for each and every one of them. Further, we seek to not just support those diagnosed with dementia-related illness, but also their spouses, children, and other caregivers who are facing a challenge unlike any other they’ve encountered before.
Family caregivers provide the vast majority of care for people with dementia. Our region’s health relies upon their efforts. However, while caregiving can be a rewarding experience, it can also be extremely difficult. Many caregivers attending our support groups share feelings of being overwhelmed, isolation, and experiencing a wide range of difficult and complicated emotions. Through DSNW programs, these same caregivers find opportunities for support, positive interactions, and acceptance. We strive daily to bring caregivers together and provide the support and resources needed for them to continue in their all-important role.
With interaction, relationships, and connection listed as the top priority among Aging Well listening session respondents, it is clear that DSNW can fulfill a significant role in the health and well-being of caregivers, and those with dementia who rely on them. Assuming at least one primary caregiver for each of those living with dementia, we anticipate that in 2021 approximately 8,000 residents of Whatcom County stand to directly benefit from our agency’s services.
Those same top priorities, however, all indicate that it’s through those points of contact that relief and resources can be found
Changes Due to the Pandemic
During the current Covid-19 pandemic, DSNW confronted many of the same challenges faced by other support agencies around the globe, and quickly adapted our existing programmatic offerings to new, virtual methods of reaching caregivers and those living with dementia. Though it has not been a seamless transfer of services, the adoption of virtual support groups allowed for a lifeline to ensure that our agency’s motto “You Are Not Alone” would endure even where physical meeting wasn’t feasible from a safety perspective. As an added benefit, our virtual groups now encompass a considerably more geographically diverse demographic, with participants able to join regardless of where they currently live.
The changes to operations didn’t stop with the shift of some programs to the virtual space. In the fall of 2020, DSNW made the decision to temporarily reorganize, shifting all agency operations into a remote work system. Though there were significant benefits to such a shift in an extraordinarily difficult financial and operational environment, we were aware that such a decision could result in the deterioration of many of our direct, in-person services. To bridge the service gap, DSNW was able to procure a bus generously provided by Birchview Memory Care and — with funds provided by the Chuckanut Health Foundation — remodeled it into a full-service mobile office.
Many have been successful in accessing our virtual resources, and others live within the Bellingham community and as such are more easily visited by local staff and volunteers. But, as an agency that relies largely on limited free advertising and word of mouth, for many living in the smaller communities and outlying tribal reservations, the services offered by DSNW are likely largely unknown, to say nothing of those unable to access our virtual program offerings or need those services only available through in-person contact points.
In addition to fulfilling the same needs met previously in a traditional brick and mortar setting, we believe the mobile office will allow for greatly expanded direct services to many of the more remote and rural residents of Whatcom County. Our newest service offering currently seeking funding, the Rural Visits Program, will see the mobile office deployed to at least twelve distinct communities throughout Whatcom County over the coming year, bringing the full suite of agency services to both those unable to access them and to others who may be entirely unaware of the agency or its services. If successful, we hope to expand the program to a wider scope, incorporating sections of Skagit County where available in subsequent years.
In providing direct, on-site services to these communities, we hope to build inroads allowing for the expansion of direct service options to those who are unable to access virtual program offers, to others who may be financially unable to travel regularly to Bellingham, and to those in need of in-person consultations and services. As an added benefit, we hope that by providing these services from a fully wrapped mobile office, awareness can be spread as an extremely beneficial externality to the program.
For more information regarding Dementia Support Northwest, its programs, or services, you can visit our website (dementiasupportnw.org) or find us on Facebook (@AlzheimerSocietyofWashington).
How You Can Help
As with any other agency that relies on donations in lieu of instituting a fee-based service model, sustaining the funding for these services is an enduring challenge. Though major capital and programmatic projects are supported through case-by-case grant funding, basic operating funds remain almost entirely donation based and are vital in ensuring we can keep the lights on to ensure that our legacy of education and direct support services continues on.
Daniel Gray is the current executive director for Dementia Support Northwest. He brings a blended skillset to the position, grounded in direct dementia care and support gained during his time working within a dementia-specialized assisted living community, as well a professional background in nonprofit management.