Hospice Is Hope First responders take compassion training to help dementia patients

Hospice of the Valley and the Phoenix Fire Department partnered to produce two dementia training videos. (Photos by Delbert Vega, Hospice of the Valley)

By Lin Sue Cooney

“I’m a hostage here!”

But in fact, “Mr. Ford” is not a hostage. He’s a fictitious dementia patient at the center of a training video Hospice of the Valley is producing in partnership with the Phoenix Fire Department. The goal: to teach first responders the best ways to help dementia patients who are in distress.

By using actors to simulate real-life scenarios—firefighters, police and paramedics learn best practices, including: communicating in nonthreatening ways, establishing a comforting rapport; de-escalating fear and violent behavior and reassuring patients they are safe.

Hospice of the Valley shot two training videos to illustrate teaching points, ones that can completely transform an interaction with a terrified and confused person with dementia.

The first video, with which Hospice of the Valley collaborated with Phoenix Police Department, focuses on an elderly woman in her 70s with dementia who fell and hurt her knee in a grocery store parking lot.

She is delusional—thinking she is much younger—and frantic to pick up small children up from a bus stop.

In this scenario, first responders learn how to speak calmly and introduce themselves by name. They call the patient by her name and offer friendly reassurance that her kids are going to be fine. One firefighter takes the lead and asks the others to step back so the patient feels less intimidated. Communication is at eye level and first responders remove sunglasses, which can frighten dementia patients. At all times, they seek to soothe her distress, saying things like, “I am going to keep you safe. I’m here to help you. I’m going to stay right here.”

Hospice of the Valley’s Gardiner Home, an inpatient care home specializing in dementia care, was the setting for the second video. Retired fire Capt. Gary Allen Ford plays a 63-year-old with advanced dementia — who is “agitated and combative.” When firefighters arrive, he complains of “feeling hot” and they learn he has a history of cardiac issues.

In this particular scene, the staff person is newly employed and doesn’t know much about Mr. Ford, who is ranting loudly and pacing erratically. Wearing a military-style camouflage jacket, the Vietnam War veteran keeps demanding that he be taken to the “base,” as he’s convinced he’s on leave and needs to get back immediately.

The lead fire medic uses his military history to bond with the frantic patient and calm him down. He tells Mr. Ford he’s a veteran himself from the Iraq War — and thanks him for his service. He explains to Mr. Ford that he’ll be checking his vitals and asks him if he’s having difficulty breathing. Then he tells him they’re getting an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

“On the base?” Mr. Ford asks.

“On the base,” the medic replies without missing a beat.

When Mr. Ford’s wife arrives to Gardiner Home, they learn more about Mr. Ford’s health and medication, eventually concluding that a possible infection may explain his agitation. The fire team assures a distraught Mrs. Ford that someone will accompany her husband to the hospital — so he won’t be frightened and they offer helpful resources.

Both training videos are part of HOV’s Dementia Care Fellowship program—and the project was spearheaded by Capt. Dan Daley, who recently retired from the Phoenix Fire Department. Daley and current fire Capt. Benjamin Santillan are committed to making sure first responders serve the community with compassion as well as expertise.

“Our job is not to judge any patient, but to find out what’s really going on,” Santillan said.

“We are grateful for the education we’re getting from Hospice of the Valley. It gives us the ability to understand dementia and how the disease process works.” Santillan notes that he lost his grandmother to dementia, now the fourth-leading cause of death in Arizona.

Daley agrees. “We have to show understanding and patience. When a dementia patient is hostile or aggressive, we need to remember– it’s not the person acting that way, it’s the disease taking over,” he said.

Hospice of the Valley offers a unique in-home Palliative Care for Dementia Program to help improve quality of life for dementia patient and support their family caregivers.

To learn more about this innovative program, which is offered at no-cost for the first month, call us at 602-636-6363 or visit https://bit.ly/2YOmYx0 Financial aid is available.