Calgary Fire champions dementia awareness

Derek Arthurs helps vulnerable populations every day in his job as a Community Safety Officer for the Calgary Fire Department.

But leading an effort to support Calgarians with dementia was personal. And very rewarding.

“I had a grandfather and several relatives who had dementia,” he says. “Seeing the progression of this disease in them was difficult, but I find it very rewarding that there are ways we can make a difference and support people with dementia in Calgary.”

Today, there are more than 13,000 people diagnosed with dementia or related conditions. About 130,000 Calgarians know someone affected. And these numbers are expected to double in the next 15 years.

The opportunity

In 2017, the Community Safety team at the Calgary Fire Department (CFD) was approached by the Brenda Stafford Foundation, a seniors charity, to help with the first Dementia Friendly Community pilot project in Alberta.

For CFD, getting involved made sense on many fronts, Derek says.

“We already do a lot of work with older adults to promote fire prevention and fall prevention,” he says.

The CFD Community Safety team initiated a year-long plan to help raise awareness and understanding of dementia across the Calgary Fire Department.

Online dementia awareness training was provided to more than 1,400 Calgary Fire staff, both uniformed and non-uniformed.

Firefighters at the Coach Hill Fire Station – Station 29 – received a more intense training program because of their proximity to the Dementia Friendly Community pilot project that was launching in the West Hills community.

“Working with the Brenda Stafford Foundation, we had the firefighters simulate what it’s like to have dementia and the physical ailments that are prevalent in older adults,” Derek says. “It was eye-opening. They received a new appreciation for everything dementia sufferers go through.”

And less than a month later, a crew at the Coach Hill Fire Station was first on-scene to a 9-1-1 call of an elderly gentleman who wandered from his home and got lost in a wooded ravine in -25C weather.

“The crew correctly identified his dementia, and they were able to better communicate and provide more empathetic and compassionate assistance,” he says. “The family sent a letter of appreciation and were so thankful for how well he was treated.”

As part of CFD’s dementia awareness efforts, we allow Calgarians with dementia, along with their family and caregivers, to contact 311 to request a visit from the Community Safety team so they can share helpful tips and resources.

Since the dementia awareness initiative was implemented, Derek says other fire departments and first responder agencies across Canada have reached out to learn about what CFD is doing. “We are a leader in dementia support,” he says.