FORT MILL — Samantha Kriegshauser wasn’t arrested for challenging two rooms full of local police and firefighters rather bluntly – if you have a working brain, use it.
Kriegshauser is director for and dementia specialist with Adult Enrichment Centers in Fort Mill. Last week she trained more than 40 of the town’s police and firefighters on dealing with dementia, recognizing it on a service call and avoiding escalating incidents. The idea is that those with full mental faculties in a difficult situation also are the ones in control.
“It was interesting,” Kriegshauser said between the Tuesday and Thursday sessions. “You’ve got a room full of alpha males and this little blonde woman standing there teaching them something they may or may not want to learn about.”
There ended up being male and female students. The training came after a conversation on Alzheimer’s between Kriegshauser and Mayor Danny Funderburk, then talks among Funderburk, Police Chief Jeff Helms and interim Fire Chief Jerry Chapman.
“They agreed it was a smart and timely thing to do,” Funderburk said. “I commend them for seeing the value in receiving proper instruction and training on what to look for and how to best handle Alzheimer’s situations.”
Cognitive impairment can lead to a variety of service calls. Fires can result from inattention. People with dementia often rummage, prompting theft calls. Many think themselves younger than they are, leading to low inhibitions and hyper-sexuality. Which can create entirely new sets of complaints.
“Families will find them in compromising positions,” Kriegshauser said, “and families will go postal.”
A main concern is wandering. Six of 10 dementia sufferers wander, usually to a place from their childhood, Kriegshauser said. Of those, 94 percent are found within 1.5 miles of home, she said.
“That can save you some time and some resources if you know where to start looking for them,” Kriegshauser said.
Responders on scene can unintentionally create more problems without a proper understanding of dementia. They’re often large, intimidating and surrounded by lights and sounds that overwhelm, she said. Kriegshauser instructed on how to approach head-on, slowly, with a lowered voice and having asked permission first. Only one officer should speak, with simple phrases and few questions.
Simple steps can avoid officers being hit or having to take someone down.
“Don’t take for granted that you have it under control,” Kriegshauser said. “It will happen, and the more you know about it the better you’ll be able to respond.”
Sometimes dealing with Alzheimer’s, autism or other forms of dementia will require physical confrontation, she said. But, showing responders a scan of an Alzheimer’s sufferer’s brain, Kriegshauser urged her students to try every method of calming the situation first.
“These people are walking around living life the best they can, literally, with holes in their brains,” she said.
Time to prepare
A variety of factors make dementia awareness a pressing concern for first responders. One is basic math. Fort Mill’s population jumped 42 percent from the 2000 to 2010 Census. Of those 10,811 residents, 10 percent are 65 or older. Nearby, Tega Cay’s population jumped 88 percent in the same span to 7,620.
Baby boomers aging and young soldiers returning from war trauma swell the ranks of dementia sufferers. Improved medicine means people living longer. Gone are the days when, for instance, people with Down Syndrome hardly ever lived past age 50. There’s a specific form of dementia common to that population.
Even alcoholism plays a part.
“As you kill those brain cells from drinking too much, they don’t regenerate,” Kriegshauser said. “They don’t come back.”
States and national groups are pushing like never before, she said, for inclusion of younger people with developmental issues in traditional classrooms, social groups and the workforce.
“It’s an increasing population,” Kriegshauser said.
There’s reason to believe a major economic investment will contribute to more service calls, too. Last spring, Tega Cay officials announced plans for Wellmore, a $30 million assisted living facility on Hwy. 160 West to open early next year. Responders there, and nearby should a wandering situation occur, should prepare, Kriegshauser said.
“You’re going to get more of those calls,” she said.
Lt. Ray Dixon paid the price Thursday for sitting on the front row, participating in demonstrations. He didn’t mind. A member of the town’s safety and wellness committee, Dixon was so impressed that he’s already working to offer the training to other town support staff.
“We’re not the only ones in our town who deal with our citizens face to face,” Dixon said.
Fort Mill police officers get calls involving dementia sufferers infrequently but not rarely, Dixon said. It happens often enough that both training sessions ended with officers asking specific questions, even relaying encounters with individuals who Kriegshauser knows and has worked with personally.
“They started asking questions about specific examples,” she said. “It’s obviously something they’re already dealing with.”
Dixon accepted Kriegshauser’s challenge to work toward calm resolutions in such cases. He would in any situation. Only now he’s a little better equipped.
“If we’re able to deal with that kind of call and do it effectively, it works out better for everybody,” Dixon said.