SHERIDAN — Health care and social assistance entities employ 16 percent of the total workforce in Sheridan County, according to DataUSA. Plus, people 65 years and older make up 20.1 percent of the population. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia came in as Sheridan County’s fifth leading cause of death in 2016.
With all of these statistics in mind, Sheridanites are working to make life better for those living with dementia and those potentially facing the disease.
Dementia Friendly Wyoming initiated a friendly visitors program designed to match volunteers with individuals at risk of dementia for weekly visits.
“Without the stimulation that social interaction and friendship provides, an isolated elder can experience poor health, a lack of strength and energy, depression and other physical and emotional problems” DFW director Kay Wallick said. “Weekly visits from friendly visitors can change this.”
Claudia Colnar was paired with Hanley Cohn, a 92-year-old Sheridan-born resident living with dementia. Colnar takes Cohn on adventures frequently and is a consistent friend in Cohn’s life. The consistency helps Cohn reminisce and remember the past.
“I forget everything unless I can reminisce about what the hell I did or didn’t do,” Cohn said. “I forget everything I wanted to do 10 seconds after I wanted to do it, so I write myself notes all the time.
“I’d be lost without her,” Cohn added. “She keeps me alive.”
Cohn told Colnar he wants to live to be as old as his granddad, who made it 99 years before he died. Cohn said his grandfather credited not drinking or smoking as his trick to living as long as he did, which Cohn adopted and still lives by to this day.
“I told him he has to (live to be as old as his granddad) because I want to have a nice long relationship with him,” Colnar said.
While Cohn credits his good health and his ability to walk with only a cane to not consuming smoking and drinking, Colnar recognizes the companionship as a deterrent to increasing effects of dementia.
Currently, 9,400 people are living with Alzheimer’s disease in Wyoming. Dementia Collaborative Research Centres of Australia identified old age, genetic mutations, genetic factors like Down syndrome and family history of the disease as well-established risk factors for Alzheimer’s. The study also identified possible protective factors for the disease including physical activity, ongoing intellectual stimulation, leisure and social activities, higher education and certain drugs related to cholesterol, hypertension and inflammatories.
Colnar integrates several of those protective factors in her weekly interactions with Cohn, including intellectual stimulation through visits to The Brinton Museum and Sheridan County Museum. Colnar and Cohn have enjoyed several coffee breaks at Java Moon and have attended Concerts in the Park throughout the summer. Cohn even kept up with Colnar on a recent visit to Tongue River Canyon.
“It’s extremely rewarding and I love being able to help Hanley as he talks about reminiscing,” Colnar said. “He likes to thank me for helping him reminisce, because we go back to places that he hasn’t been for a long time.”
Colnar emphasized those needing assistance may live right next door.
“These are our friends and neighbors, people we see out in the community,” Colnar said. “It’s wonderful being able to interact with them and for them to have the opportunity to interact with other people and get out and not be stuck at home all the time.”
DFW needs volunteers willing to take those living with dementia to run errands and go in with them to doctor’s appointments. Wallick said normal transportation isn’t fitting for those living with dementia. Anyone interested receives initial training and ongoing support.
The next training will be Aug. 16 from 1-2 p.m. at the DFW offices on 1 S. Scott St., Suite 2.