Slowing Down to Help Out: Serving Your Customers Living With Dementia

There are nearly 120,000 people in Wisconsin who are living with dementia, and that number is expected to double in the next twenty to thirty years. Of those living with dementia, 70 percent are people still living in the community. They still go shopping, meet with friends, and could walk into your bank. You may be asking yourself now, "do I know how to best assist a customer with dementia?"

"As a community bank it is important for us to be active and aware of our community members," said Lisa Higgins, agricultural and commercial lender for Union Bank & Trust Company, Evansville. "We have a few staff that have family impacted by dementia and wanted to train staff to better assist those members of our community." 

Dementia is a general term to describe a set of symptoms affecting mental ability. Memory loss is the most well-known of the symptoms, but it can impact other faculties like language, thinking, personality, and behavior. Dementia in and of itself is not a disease but a symptom of a variety of diseases, the most common of which is Alzheimer's.

Learn how to become a dementia-friendly bank! Access the WBA How to Become a Dementia-Friendly Bank webinar:
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People living with dementia still want to continue to be viable members of society. "We've been asked by people with dementia to do three things," explained Cori Marsh, Dementia Care Specialist with the Rock County Aging and Disability Resource Center. "They would like help to [1] do the things they have always done, [2] with the people they have always done them with, and [3] in a safe way."

This is where the Dementia Friendly Initiatives come in. In 2013 the State of Wisconsin initiated its Dementia Care Redesign Effort, which, among other things, aimed to expand community resources for people living with dementia. Now, several counties have added a Dementia Care Specialist to their Aging and Disability Resource Centers and are training businesses in their communities to be Dementia Friendly.

"Banks have been our biggest customers for Dementia-Friendly Training," said Joy Schmidt, Dementia Care Specialist with the Dane County Aging and Disability Resource Center. "Banks are frequently the first to notice changes in a person… One of the first signs of dementia can be having trouble managing finances, falling for scams, and those with dementia become more vulnerable to financial abuse."

The training typically consists of an overview of what Alzheimer's and dementia are, ways to recognize the signs of dementia, and how to better communicate with those that may be living with dementia. "We were given things to look out for," explained Higgins about the bank's Dementia-Friendly training. "They were things that we may have already noticed but didn't know the 'why.'"

The acronym SLOWER is emphasized in Dementia-Friendly training. It stands for:

One thing at a time
Words clear
Eye Contact
Remaining Calm

These are the basic tenets for communicating with a customer with dementia. Schmidt also emphasized that bankers should not take things personally, or be embarrassed or uncomfortable when interacting with customers who may have dementia, and acknowledge that the customer is trying to communicate even if they are not totally understood. 

There are a variety of challenges facing those with dementia in relation to banking, such as overdrafts due to scams, paying bills multiple times, no longer being able to balance their checking account, as well as the actual act of being in a bank. Often times for those with dementia, short term memory is impacted so a customer may repeat questions and need more assistance. If the bank is busy, they may not be able to take the noise. "Talk with them in a quiet space and slow down when interacting," explained Marsh. Other environmental factors like busy patterns on the floor and signage that is too small or unclear can cause challenges to customers with dementia.

Higgins, Marsh, and Schmidt all encouraged banks to reach out to their local Aging and Disability Resource Center to see what dementia-friendly information and training is available. "Some counties help promote those that have gone through the training and will give them purple stickers to display that show they are a dementia-friendly business," said Schmidt. "We have consumers calling asking for dementia-friendly businesses." As noted earlier, many counties have a dedicated Dementia Care Specialist

Higgins says frontline staff have always been patient with customers, but since the training she notices a higher level of engaged interaction. It's not only customers with dementia who will appreciate this higher level of engagement, but their families and caregivers, too. And that is the hallmark of community banking in Wisconsin: serving and knowing your customers and community. 

By, Amber Seitz