Making Michigan dementia friendly: The impact of academy and community partnership

Research Topics > Making Michigan dementia friendly: The impact of academy and community partnership

I am an associate professor in the School of Social Work, and I coordinate the School’s Levande Gerontology Program. My work focuses on reducing the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia on individuals, families, and the community.

In 2017, I was selected as a Health and Aging Policy Fellow funded by the John Hartford Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies. Given my interest in health solutions from a global perspective, I landed with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse within the World Health Organization (WHO) as my placement. As a fellow, I have been working to develop a toolkit for countries that are interested in building dementia-friendly communities.

Currently, there are about 48 million people worldwide affected by dementia. In Michigan, there are approximately 120,000 people living with dementia. Lack of awareness, widespread stigma, and insufficient social engagement opportunities are commonly shared barriers that exacerbate the stress and burden of families affected by dementia. Responding to these challenges, WHO specified dementia awareness and friendliness promotion as one of its seven action areas in its 2017 global action plan for dementia. Around the world, 46 countries have developed a dementia-friendly initiative to build an inclusive physical and social environment where people with dementia feel safe, respected, and engaged.

The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging champions the dementia-friendly American initiative in the U.S. In Michigan, Grand Rapids and Battle Creek have an active dementia-friendly initiative, while a few more cities are in the process of developing a dementia-friendly campaign. The Region 3B Area Agency on Aging in Battle Creek is my primary community partner. In Battle Creek, according to the agency director Karla Fales, their dementia-friendly initiative is built on three pillars: (1) raising awareness about dementia, (2) facilitating the coordination within care systems, and (3) building an inclusive environment.

In order to improve caregiver knowledge and competency regarding dementia caregiving, my team worked with Fales and her team and developed a four-session training that promotes technology competency among dementia caregivers living in rural areas of Battle Creek. Family caregivers who received the training showed an improvement in their knowledge of dementia, online and community resources about dementia caregiving, and technological devices/strategies that can help with daily caregiving tasks.

Battle Creek’s experience of implementing a dementia-friendly community represents a great example of how community aging service agencies can collaborate with research institutions to bring about positive changes in the community.... The involvement of a university partner can provide expertise and resources to help sustain the momentum in local communities.

In order to form a protective and inclusive environment for dementia patents, my second project targets the training for dementia patients, family caregivers, and community service professionals to improve their dementia literacy and strengthen their skills to form a respectful, safe, and welcoming community for people with dementia. This project received funding from the Prevent Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse, Exploitation, Neglect Today (PREVNT) initiative within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, about 22 participants (including patients, caregivers, and service professionals) in the Battle Creek area have received training. In the coming year, awareness campaigns and educational workshops to reduce stigma and improve inclusions will be launched to reach out to more residents in the community.

Battle Creek’s experience of implementing a dementia-friendly community represents a great example of how community aging service agencies can collaborate with research institutions to bring about positive changes in the community. For many small cities and towns in Michigan, Battle Creek’s model can be inspirational and replicable. The involvement of a university partner can provide expertise and resources to help sustain the momentum in local communities. Such partnerships can be facilitated through the outreach effort of university extension offices or community agency sponsored events open to researchers. Battle Creek’s experience contributes to the global knowledge body in this regard. The case study of Battle Creek has been included in the WHO global toolkit for creating dementia-friendly communities that will be released in the fall of 2019.

In the coming year, my team and I will continue to identify innovative and evidence-based approaches to assist patients living with different stages of dementia and their family caregivers through positive community partnerships. My team will run focus groups and deliver educational workshops related to dementia caregiving in different parts of Michigan such as Marquette, Detroit, East Lansing, and Manistee. If you are interested in launching a dementia-friendly community in your neighborhood, please feel free to contact me at sunfei@msu.edu.

Dr. Fei Sun and MSW student Emmanuel Chima presented findings from the WHO global consultation process together with Dr. Anne Margriet from WHO and Ms. Dévora Kestel from PAHO at the Alzheimer's Disease International's 33rd Conference in Chicago
Dr. Fei Sun and MSW student Emmanuel Chima presented findings from the WHO global consultation process together with Dr. Anne Margriet from WHO and Ms. Dévora Kestel from PAHO at the Alzheimer's Disease International's 33rd Conference in Chicago