On Wednesday at the Seymour Center, Orange County officials announced the launch of a major initiative that will make our community one of the most welcoming in the nation for patients and caregivers living with dementia.

“This is an exciting day for us,” said Janice Tyler, director of the Orange County Department on Aging. “We (in Orange County) are the recipient of a $900,000 Alzheimer’s Disease Initiative Specialized Support Services grant, which will be administered over the next three years.”

The funding comes from a federal project called the Dementia Friendly America Initiative, launched in July at the White House Conference on Aging. Orange County is one of only 15 communities nationwide, and the only one in the state, to be selected as a recipient of this initial round of grants.

The funds will be used partly to enhance a variety of programs Orange County already has in place.

“The funds for this grant will specifically target caregivers and residents with Alzheimer’s and related dementias,” says County Commissioner Earl McKee. “This money will enable the county to expand services and support, and we want to do all we can to assist these individuals and their caregivers – and also their friends and families – to reduce isolation and improve their quality of life.”

But more than that, the grant money will also help Orange County launch a program called the Dementia-Friendly Businesses Campaign. Inspired by similar efforts in other communities, the program will encourage Orange County businesses to get certified as “dementia-friendly” by having their staff trained in how to recognize the signs of dementia and how to address the particular needs of caregivers and dementia patients.

Orange County Dementia Friendly Business Initiative Logo

Lorenzo Mejia is the owner of Acorn Homecare Services; he’s been working to launch the program, with the help of the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club. “Today we are launching something amazing,” he said Wednesday. “The Dementia-Friendly Business Initiative trains local businesses in what dementia is, how to recognize it, and how to interact with customers that might have it…

“And this is huge. If salespeople appreciate that big menus with lots of options can be intimidating, or that a credit card terminal is daunting, it can have a profound impact on how people experience that business. It’s a place they’ll feel comfortable visiting, and they’re going to tell their family and friends.”

Officials say projects like the Dementia-Friendly Business Campaign will only become more essential as the American population continues to age. An estimated 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease today, and that number is expected to grow to more than 7 million in the next 10 years. One out of every seven live by themselves. In Orange County alone, about 2,500 residents suffer from Alzheimer’s and related dementias – and McKee says the impact is far-reaching.

“It affects not only that person (with dementia), it affects their family, it affects their friends, (and) it affects the community,” he said Wednesday.

That sentiment was echoed Wednesday by Linnea Smith and Bobby Gersten. Bobby Gersten is UNC’s oldest living former basketball player; Linnea Smith is a psychiatrist and the wife of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith – and both have known the experience of caregiving for a spouse struggling with dementia.

“Your life is never the same,” said Gersten, who cared for his wife Libbie. “It takes two professional caretakers to get them out of bed, to get them to the bathroom, to get them to the dining room, to help them eat – it’s just something you’re never, never going to be ready for until it happens.”

Bobby Gersten speaks at Wednesday's press conference. (Photo by Aaron Keck.)

Bobby Gersten speaks at Wednesday’s press conference. (Photo by Aaron Keck.)

Smith agreed. “Alzheimer’s and other dementias present enormous challenges,” she said. “They’re chronic, progressive, and terminal. It doesn’t matter how successful an individual is, or how well known, or how remarkable his memory. It doesn’t make one exempt…

“It is a family disease, and it takes a village to provide care.”

Listen to Linnea Smith’s full remarks.


Officials say they’re hoping the Dementia-Friendly Business Campaign will help expand that “village” in a real and meaningful way. Ten businesses have already signed up, and Mejia says he’s hoping to add a hundred more to the list in the next year.

At the Department on Aging, Janice Tyler says that will make a huge difference. “The quality of life for this sector of our population will improve immensely,” she said Wednesday, “as a direct result of these federal dollars.”

If you’re a business owner in Orange County and you want your business to become Dementia-Friendly, it’s only a 2-hour training session away. For more information, visit DFOrangeCounty.org.

Businesses that have already signed on to Orange County’s Dementia-Friendly Business Initiative:

The Animal Hospital of Carrboro
Carrboro Family Pharmacy
Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA
Chapel Hill Public Library
Fidelity Bank of Chapel Hill
Jersey Mike’s
Law Office of Colin K. Austin
Maitland Law Firm