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Bridging the Alzheimer's Awareness Gap to Build Empathy

These programs bring students together with older adults with Alzheimer's

By Mike Good

Millions of people with unique challenges face their adversary on a daily basis. They live all around us, yet we are unaware of the physical, emotional or financial problems they face. Our lack of awareness prevents us from having empathy and compassion for them.

When you are the person facing challenges, and you are part of a larger group focused on one disease such as Alzheimer’s, it’s sometimes hard to understand why everyone isn’t aware of and involved in your cause.

Intergenerational activities are vital to bridging the Alzheimer's awareness gap and building empathy. “Empathy is the key for culture change,” said Dr. Daniel Potts, of Cognitive Dynamics, a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of people with cognitive disorders and their caregivers, particularly through the arts.

Most Are Uninformed

Even though there is a new case of Alzheimer’s or other dementia every 3.2 seconds (27,000 new cases per day), according to the World Alzheimer’s Report 2015, those with Alzheimer’s represent a very small percentage of the world’s population.

As such, the vast majority of people are generally uninformed about the physical, emotional and financial toll the disease has on their friends, neighbors or coworkers.

A Pioneer in Action

Potts, whose father experienced the benefits of expressive arts while battling Alzheimer’s, is pioneering programs and is involved with two that are building necessary bridges.

Bringing Art to Life, a collaboration between Cognitive Dynamics and the University of Alabama Honors College, unites students with persons with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. During an eight-week art therapy program, the honors students document life-story elements that are used to create memoirs for the participants.

“Most importantly, students develop empathy for those with dementia, and for their caregivers,” the Bringing Art to Life website says. Without this bridge, these students may never be aware of the challenges families affected by dementia face. And, as Potts says, “They learn it is possible for a meaningful relationship with a person with dementia.”


Starting Even Younger

But what if we could reach people earlier in life? Maybe teaching our youth to be empathetic would lead to a more compassionate society where inclusion of people with unique needs is the norm, not the exception.

Let Me Be Your Memory is a collaboration between Cognitive Dynamics and The Voice Library, and has been implemented at the middle school level. This six-week program offers an adaptable curriculum with a goal of building language art competencies by raising awareness of those living with memory disorders and their caregivers.

During the program, students connect with family to learn to “Speak, listen, read and write to discover the importance of their own and their loved ones’ life stories,” its website says. These memories are captured by the students and preserved on The Voice Library website.

Bringing Them Together

These types of intergenerational interactions truly build bridges that enrich lives while helping to teach empathy to those who may otherwise never learn it.

By teaching Alzheimer’s awareness to those outside of the Alzheimer’s or dementia community, we can also establish empathy, which leads to a more compassionate and supportive society.

Mike Good is founder of Together in This, an online community helping family members caring for someone with Alzheimer's. His goal is to provide information and tools to help caregivers take control and find peace-of-mind. Read More
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