About 30 businesses in the Cedar Falls area have taken steps to become informed, safe, respectful environments for people living with dementia.

Elaine Eshbaugh, a professor of gerontology at The University of Northern Iowa, is teaching a course that certifies those merchants as “dementia friendly,” something she’d like to see go statewide. “You have to have 50% of your employees present at a training,” Eshbaugh says. “It’s a one-hour training and we try to make it really applicable to the type of work that you do or your business. What we really focus on are just very simple ways that you can assist people who live with dementia to allow them to thrive in the community.”

Elaine Eshbaugh. (UNI photo)

Dementia touches many tens of thousands of Iowans and business owners are wanting to best address those clients, in places ranging from dentists to hardware stores to hair salons. “I have an esthetician who does facials and she has a client who has Alzheimer’s,” Eshbaugh says. “She went through the training because it was really important for her to learn how to best serve someone who had Alzheimer’s so that she could continue to come back and continue to do something that she loved to do.”

Eshbaugh says 80% of those with dementia live in the community, not in assisted living centers or nursing homes, and they should be able to shop, eat, and seek services like the rest of us. She has been a part of Dementia Friendly Iowa since its pilot year in 2019 and says the training program is gaining strength in the business sector.

“When we go somewhere to do this, a lot of times when we get there, they don’t understand what dementia has to do with their business, and then we teach them that and they get it,” Eshbaugh says. “Most places have been really eager and most of their employees have been really anxious to get on board, not only because this is something that impacts them professionally, it is something that does impact many of them personally as well.”

More than six-million people nationwide are living with Alzheimer’s disease, including 66,000 in Iowa. Eshbaugh says one of the primary goals is to be able to allow people with dementia to live and thrive in their own homes and communities as long as possible. She helps to run a dementia simulation house near UNI’s Cedar Falls campus where visitors are outfitted with gear that helps to show them what it would be like to try to navigate through life with dementia.