First Responders & Dementia Patients: A Training Gap

First Responders & Dementia Patients: A Training Gap

First responders are some of the most authentic heroes I know. Their job pressures are both physically demanding and emotionally exhausting. They have to quickly gather facts while feeling the pressure to make right decisions in each situation, and they must maintain constant awareness of possible danger to themselves or the people they’re trying to help. I genuinely appreciate the commitment our first responders have made to serve the community.

Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics receive multiple hours of instruction in their respective fields (i.e., firemen are trained to bring a blaze under control while paramedics become certified to handle medical emergencies). Each is expected meet various educational requirements before being sent out to work with the public.

However, as well trained as they are, I have come to realize there is a “disconnect” of sorts between many of our first responders and the individuals in our society who are suffering with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association states there are currently more than six million Americans living with Alzheimer’s (which is only one type of dementia), and they project that number will rise to nearly 13 million by 2050. And while those numbers are sobering, it was my own personal experience that made me realize the need for our first responders to receive more specific training to help these precious patients.

My father-in-law, an Alzheimer’s patient, has suffered with much paranoia and agitation as his condition has progressed. He recently broke out a window at his assisted living memory care home, ran across the lawn to the busy street and flagged down the first car he saw. The aides on duty dashed out the front door in an effort to catch him. A car pulled over, and the driver—who just happened to be an off-duty police officer—got out in time to see the would-be escapee hit one of the aides. Now the incident was considered assault, and the off-duty officer was compelled to call it in.

Shortly thereafter a patrol car pulled up, and the newly arrived on-duty officer began arguing with my father-in-law, insisting he was about to be arrested for his actions. The memory care home aides tried in vain to explain my father-in-law’s condition to the officer. Finally, one of the aides got on the phone with the memory care home’s director.

“Sir, he has Alzheimer’s,” the director pleaded with the officer, “and he doesn’t understand what you’re trying to tell him. Please, please stop arguing with him. He has Alzheimer’s…he doesn’t understand.”

At last, the officer stopped engaging and allowed the aides to step in again. They calmed their patient down and safely got him back inside. Even so, the officer continued to insist, “He’s either going to a hospital or he’s going to jail.” So it was off to the ER for my father-in-law.

I became curious to know how much specialized training our first responders are given regarding dementia patients; I thought there must surely be some degree of instruction regarding the ways dementia manifests, redirection for confusion and de-escalation of dementia-related agitation. In order to find out about training within specific disciplines, I spoke with a fireman (who was an EMT early in his career), a police officer and a certified EMT with the National Guard; each one individually told me they have received no specialized training to approach and/or respond to a dementia patient.

It is imperative that we encourage first responders to learn as much as they can about handling a situation involving dementia. To that end, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a free first responder course which was actually developed with input from other first responders. Also, a quick internet search of “first responders and dementia training” provides a number of websites loaded with information so these professionals can not only do the job they were originally trained for but also safely direct our loved ones who are in cognitive decline.

I urge caregivers to speak up whenever the opportunity presents itself; talk with the police, firemen, EMTs and paramedics about being trained to have a proper response with a dementia patient. As the population continues to age, it makes sense that encounters between first responders and those with dementia will only increase, so let’s be ready.


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