When helping people with dementia is everyone’s business

March 6, 2018 | Health

Nursing students contribute to project that builds community supports


Four Bachelor of Science in Nursing students in Susan Knibbs’ community nursing course are the latest group to help Stony Plain become a dementia-friendly community—a place where individuals with dementia can access local facilities, find their way around, feel safe and maintain their social networks.

It’s important work for several reasons, says Ellen Elliott, site director at the Alberta Health Services Westview Health Centre in Stony Plain. “Dementia can be incredibly isolating,” she explains. “The Westview Dementia Support Community Collaborative came from listening to patient and staff experiences of how people with early dementia are being supported informally out in the community, and because of that are able to manage longer in their homes.”

as the number of people with dementia increases (the Alzheimer Society of Canada is predicting the number of Canadians living with dementia to jump from 564,000 to 937,000 in the next 13 years), finding ways to help people be independent and live productive lives in their own communities is only going to become more important.


Data source: Alzheimer Society of Canada


It’s a message that Maria Alqueza, Sydney Henderson, Allyson Elemento and Heather Richardson heard loud and clear during their rotation at Westview in late 2017. Following up on work done by two other groups of students earlier in the year, the foursome focused on how businesses in the community might help improve quality of life for their neighbours and clients who have dementia.

After conducting a detailed literature review, the students outlined best practices that businesses could use to support their customers with dementia.

“We found a few common themes—often relatively simple things—that businesses can do to make it easier for people who have dementia,” says Sydney. “Things like making their stores easier to navigate, introducing a ‘slow lane’ for people who need more time and reducing distractions like mirrors and music. It’s also important for staff to focus on communication techniques like keeping eye contact and talking to the person who has dementia, rather than their family member or caregiver.”

Students’ advice for businesses who want to help community members with dementia

As our population ages and the number of people with dementia increases, making changes makes good business sense. Here's our students' advice, based on their research:

Learn what dementia is: “You can't tell from looking at someone if they have dementia, and it's not just older people,” says Sydney. Wondering what dementia is? Here’s an explanation.

Keep things simple: “Signage should be large and clear, natural light is best, flooring shouldn’t be shiny or slippery, pathways should be clear and wide, and washrooms should be easily accessible,” explains Heather.

Be patient and compassionate: “Put yourself in their shoes and think about what they're going through,” says Sydney.


In December, the students presented their findings to the collaborative and a panel of businesses in Stony Plain.

“The businesses were eager, interested and willing to listen to the findings,” says Ellen. “They also had important business perspective to share. It was an excellent conversation.” It’s one Ellen says will continue. The next steps for the project include creating a dementia-friendly customer-service education program for businesses in the community.

Once a business completes that future training, they will be able to show their commitment to supporting people with dementia with a sticker created for the project—which also illustrates how this project is building from one student group to the next. The logo on the sticker was created by an earlier group of nursing students (Elora Williams, Sophia Savice, Miakyla Ramsay and Jacquelyn Buban) who partnered with Emma Grahame, a student in MacEwan’s Design Studies program, to visually capture the spirit of the project. The logo is already being used to identify and raise awareness of the project within the tri-communities (Stony Plain, Spruce Grove and Parkland County).

It’s also a perfect example of how collaboration and community can make a difference.

“In our classes, we hear over and over that nursing is about more than just helping individuals—it’s about community—but I don’t think it really clicked until we were in the field looking at how to help people living with dementia,” says Sydney. “Our community nursing practicum at Westview connected so many dots for us—how community health care, health promotion and the social determinants of health all come together. It made us realize how important community really is.”


Susan Knibbs, MacEwan University faculty member, Bachelor of Science in Nursing students Allyson, Sydney, Maria and Heather, Ellen Elliott, site director, Alberta Health Services Westview Health Centre, and Sharon Cornelius, project coordinator with Alberta Health Services. 

But the students aren’t the only ones benefiting, says Ellen. “This is what I would call true partnership. We're able to provide a tangible, meaningful learning opportunity, but it’s also one that ends up being valuable for all of the partners—Alberta Health Services, our community partners and, at the end of the day, our patients. This project has exceeded our expectations.”

Susan couldn’t agree more. “Our students are truly part of the team at Westview. They get to experience what happens in an open and visionary organization, and that makes it an amazing clinical site.”

IMAGE_STORY_Westview_studentsThe only person I know who has dementia is my uncle's mom. One of her biggest issues is shopping. It's incredibly frustrating for her because she doesn't know it's 2017. For her it's 1950, so when she sees the prices of different products she can't believe it. The cost just makes her feel enraged.

I had never really thought about how businesses might be able to help her. And I never imagined that was something I would be looking at as a nurse. In our classes, we hear over and over that nursing is about more than just helping individuals—it’s about community. But I don’t think that really clicked until we were in the field looking at how to help people living with dementia. Read more.

Read more about how our students are connecting with community:

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