Los Angeles Has a Purposeful Plan to Build Dementia-Friendly Communities

By Laura Trejo, Debra L. Cherry and Lorenza C. Sanchez

As America ages, ensuring that its communities embrace the needs of persons with demen­tia is an emerging challenge crucial to address.

Today, the Los Angeles region has the nation’s largest concentration of older persons. If the region were a state, it would rank tenth in terms of the size of its older adult population, compared to other states. Between 2010 and 2030, the number of older adults in this region is expected to almost double, from approximately 1.1 million to more than 2.1 million individuals.

At the same time, estimates show that between now and 2030 the number of Angelenos living with Alzheimer’s disease will nearly double. There currently are an estimated 147,140 Angelenos liv­ing with Alzheimer’s disease and, by 2030, this number will reach more than 290,000. And, within this same time frame, the number of Latinx and Asian Pacific Islanders experiencing dementia is pro­jected to triple, while among African Americans, dementia prevalence will double.

An Initiative with a Purposeful Plan

In 2016, the City and County of Los Angeles launched Purposeful Aging L.A. (PALA)—An Age-Friendly Initiative that seeks to prepare the Los Angeles region for its rapidly aging population through an innovative, sustained initiative uniting public and private leadership, resources, ideas and strategies. PALA’s goal is to improve the lives of older adults and of Angelenos of all ages, and its vision is to make the region the most age-friendly in the world. 

The County of Los Angeles Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services and the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging are the lead agencies developing and implementing PALA.

The plan has ambitious recommendations, which include maintaining robust community en­gagement; developing coordinated County and City strategies for connecting older adults to mean­ingful and practical employment opportunities; expanding opportunities and resources for older adult volunteers; scaling up proven, community-based and evidence-informed health promotion and disease prevention initiatives; expanding and enhancing oral health services for low-income older adults; supporting dementia-focused community engagement, programs and policies; and more (for more information, visit http://purposeful-aging.squarespace.com).

As part of this new approach to engage this vast and diverse population, Los Angeles County prioritized the need to create dementia-friendly environments, doing so by ensuring that all as­pects of the PALA initiative include an understanding of how to improve the lives of persons with dementia. For example, each of the PALA Action Plan’s 34 recommendations was discussed and reviewed in context of its role in making Los Angeles’ communities more dementia-friendly. 

“This initiative will help us better understand what dementia is, how it affects us, and what we can do to make a difference in people’s lives,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
As described below, PALA has already begun implementing programs that support dementia-friendly communities.

Fostering “Dementia Friends”

In partnership with Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, PALA launched Dementia Friends L.A., a campaign to spread awareness of dementia and encourage County and City employees, as well as the public, to become “Dementia Friends.” The campaign is part of a global social change movement that aims to transform the way people think and talk about dementia—and how they treat those who have dementia.

Becoming a Dementia Friend empowers participants to support individuals with dementia in their communities and to reduce the stigma associated with such conditions.

Anyone can become a Dementia Friend simply by watching videos (tinyurl.com/y7qaov5k) and-or by attending in-person community talks to learn about dementia and its impacts. In Los Angeles, Dementia Friends are encouraged to use this knowledge and to be involved in their communities by becoming Dementia Champions—volunteers who provide in-person Dementia Friends talks.

In bringing this campaign to Los Angeles, the County acknowledges that the public can play a significant role in ensuring that their communities provide a nurturing environment for those with various forms of dementia and for their families. A smile and a kind word can help those affected by dementia feel included and supported.

“Making Los Angeles the most age-friendly city in the world means changing the conversation around dementia … a lack of understanding shouldn’t keep us from giving our loved ones the compas­sion and support they deserve,” says Garcetti.

Other Strategies in Play

To promote Dementia Friends L.A., Mayor Garcetti and the five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors filmed public service announcements inviting Angelenos to join with them in making Los Angeles a place that understands and supports families of people with demen­tia and other brain conditions.

And, under the County’s leadership, the region embarked in a year-long effort to develop recom­mendations for strategies to facilitate the return of adults who wander due to dementia or autism. The first program implemented in response to these recommendations is L.A. Found, which provides fam­ilies with a tracking device called Project Lifesaver that allows the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s De­partment to locate family members should they wander. Since its inception in September 2018, two individuals have wandered and were successfully located within hours.

Most recently, Garcetti adopted the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement five-step agenda. This call to action is for cities to shape a planned response to support aging residents. The agenda includes convening local stakeholders, developing a plan, educating law enforcement personnel, engaging lo­cal colleges and universities and ensuring that cities help their citizens of all ages to thrive.

As a result of Purposeful Aging L.A., the needs of older adults and their families are being inte­grated into considered, thoughtful and effective actions that make our communities good places to grow old. n

Laura Trejo, M.S.G., M.P.A., is general manager of the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging. Deb­ra L. Cherry, Ph.D., is executive vice president of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles. Lorenza C. Sanchez is assistant director of the Aging and Adult Services Branch, Los Angeles County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.