Meet the organization that believes Calgary can be a supportive, innovative community where people impacted by dementia can live life well
Five years ago, Barb Ferguson, executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Calgary, and her team took stock of Calgary’s growing resources for people living with dementia and their care partners. While they saw great potential, and the opportunity to bring various stakeholders together to coordinate efforts, they realized something was missing.
At the time, more than 42,000 Albertans were living with dementia and that number was growing. Ferguson and her team believed that, to tackle the needs of that growing population, Calgary needed a hub where individuals and organizations across many sectors could collaborate, innovate and advocate.
With this vision as a guide, Ferguson enlisted 22 stakeholders from diverse groups representing families and care partners, private care facilities, funders, community organizations, health services, post-secondary institutions, and government — all interested in tackling “the complex problem of dementia” jointly.
Stakeholders included representatives from Alberta Health Services, AgeCare and the University of Calgary, among others.
The group first met in January 2014, officially forming Dementia Network Calgary (DNC).
That same year, the Steering Committee, comprised of the original 22 members, met again to develop a strategy road map for dementia and their vision for Calgary: “The Calgary community is a supportive, innovative environment where people impacted by dementia can live life well.”
The Alzheimer Society of Calgary is the backbone organization of DNC. In that role, the Society provides coordination, communication and mobilizes funding.
DNC employs a specific approach to engagement called a collective impact model. It brings together collaborators from different sectors to address large, complex issues. Ferguson describes this fresh approach as “following the energy” of what is needed when it comes to dementia supports.
“It’s really about tackling critical community issues in a collective way, believing that not one person or organization can solve difficult problems,” says Ferguson.
In order to help people living with dementia live life well, DNC identifies priorities through engagement with impacted individuals and stakeholders and addresses these priorities through “action teams.”
These teams usually consist of a leader (either from within DNC or an outside partner) and a group of DNC volunteers. The teams meet regularly to brainstorm and carry out goals, and sometimes team up with community partners to see them accomplished. After a goal is met, action teams either disband or evolve.
For example, in 2017, one goal was to support people in the dementia community develop more interpersonal relationships and experience less isolation. To address it, community gatherings and Conversation Cafés were created.
“[We were hearing that] people felt that there was nowhere that felt safe for them and their care partners to go and just be normal,” says Kim Brundrit, who is DNC’s coordinator and one of its only employees. Brundrit, who helps care for a family member with dementia, understands this need for community interaction first-hand.
At community gatherings, which happen multiple times a year, an expert in the field of dementia shares knowledge and then engages the crowd in an interactive question period. Past speakers have included researchers familiar with the latest assistive technology, as well as experts on how to age at home.
Conversation Cafés take place in spaces like pubs and coffee shops and provide safe zones for people with dementia and their care partners to socialize and connect. Brundrit remembers that, after one café, a woman shared that she and her husband, who was living with dementia, hadn’t left the house for three months before that day.
“[The woman] said, ‘I felt so alone and ashamed, [then] I came here and there’s all these people who are in the same situation. I feel like I can go out and do something again,’” says Brundrit.
On a relational level, if people affected by dementia can feel like they belong to a community, then DNC views that as success. But, in keeping with its original goal of being a place “where people impacted by dementia can live life well,” the network also meets to discuss higher level strategic planning for the city and beyond, including becoming involved in government by advocating to local politicians.
A political advocacy action team was created in 2017 to help interested parties campaign the Alberta government for better dementia care and support. At the time, some DNC representatives even met with then-Health Minister Sarah Hoffman to push for the release of the Alberta Dementia Strategy and Action Plan, a multi-tiered approach to dealing with the growing crisis of dementia within Alberta.
The plan was released in 2017 and highlighted the need for better primary care for people living with dementia and more social awareness of the condition.
“The strategy had been in the works for years, and it was kind of just sitting on a shelf somewhere,” says Brundrit. “Through advocacy, we were able to lean on the government to release it so that people could start working on it. It was a huge success.”
Just recently, prior to the 2019 provincial election, an action team hosted a public, all-party political forum about the future of dementia care in Alberta. A landing page on DNC’s website offered an advocacy toolkit that included lists of current candidates, statistics that outlined the need to take action on dementia care, tips on what to ask a candidate that comes to your door and more.
Maybe the largest impact DNC has had to date, in terms of scale, was its successful creation of Dementia Re-imagined, a sold-out conference attended by more than 500 people in June 2018.
Held at Mount Royal University, the inaugural event hosted three world-renowned dementia researchers who shared their expertise on shifting the culture of care from task-based to a relationship-based model.
“We wanted to leave people with a sense of hope, [telling them that] you’re part of a community, you’re not alone in this and that you can be active participants in what is happening,” says Brundrit.
In July 2019, Dementia Re-Imagined: Continuing the Conversation took place and was similarly well-attended. It furthered the dialogue around care culture and featured returning world-renowned experts Daniella Greenwood and Dr. Allen Power.
“I am very proud of all that the network has accomplished this past year,” says Ferguson. “We want to build a movement around dementia in Calgary and we are already realizing greater engagement from a variety of stakeholders.”
Inspired by discussions at the first Dementia Re-imagined conference, DNC is now examining how to shift care culture locally, specifically how to implement consistent staffing models in care facilities and improve staff training standards.
Through its newly formed Social Innovation Lab, DNC will convene long-term care facility operators, DNC stakeholders and other dementia community influencers in order to test out potential solutions such as new staffing models via pilot projects throughout Alberta.
“Hopefully, we will end up with some successes that we can implement on a large scale once they are proven,” says Brundrit.
Following the Energy to the Future
Despite success within the organization, both Brundrit and Ferguson agree there is still much to be done in reaching DNC’s original vision for Calgary, but believe they are moving in the right direction.
“Our strategic goal keeps me going,” says Ferguson. “My belief is that [DNC] is how we’re going to make sustainable change. It’s about doing things differently.”
DNC has received interest from other jurisdictions looking to follow its model to achieve community impact and is happy to share resources and provide support.
Next up, DNC is preparing materials for public advocacy during the October 2019 federal election, drawing from the same framework developed for the recent provincial election.
“I see amazing possibilities here [in Calgary],” says Brundrit. “I think we could be a real world leader in [dementia] work.” [ ]