Nonprofit seeks to bridge gap between Valley and dementia sufferers

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Mary Donnelly, left, of Dementia Friendly WNC, Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors President and adjunct member of Dementia Friendly WNC Tonia Holderman, center, and Suzi Berl used the Biscuits and Business chamber event on April 3 to introduce the local community to the nonprofit organization.

More than five million Americans live with dementia, making the most mundane experiences, like shopping or going out to dinner with a loved one, a challenge.

The difference between an uncomfortable experience and an enjoyable one often comes down to awareness. A presentation by an area nonprofit at a Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce Biscuits & Business gathering on April 3 is the first step in bridging that gap on a local level.

Dementia Friendly WNC, founded in 2015, is part of a national network of communities, organizations and individuals working together to create an environment in which people suffering from dementia can remain active members of society. The Black Mountain-Montreat Auxiliary was created to promote dementia awareness in the Swannanoa Valley. 

Suzi Berl's husband Ennalls lives in the N.C. State Veterans Home in Black Mountain. 

"Most people think of Alzheimer's when they think of dementia, and it accounts for maybe 60-70 percent of folks with dementia," she said. "My husband has vascular dementia, which is slower going."

Dementia is not a specific disease but a term used when at least two brain functions, such as memory or judgement, are impaired. 

"It can strike anyone," Suzi said. "My husband is in the dementia wing of the home, and it's excellent, but you have everyone in there from day laborers to neurosurgeons to the spokesman for NASA and everyone in between."

Suzi came to Black Mountain a little over a year ago after Ennalls moved into the home. 

"We've been dealing with my husband's dementia for 12 years," Suzi said. "Every person's journey is different."

Nearly 20,000 adults are living with dementia across WNC, according to Dementia Friendly. Mary Donnelly, the organization's steering committee representative, invited business owners and other community members during the chamber event at the Red Rocker Inn. 

"Our goal is to help everyone work together in supporting those living with dementia," she said. "After all, dementia is on the rise in our aging population so we need to learn ways that we can live better with it."

A dementia friendly community, Suzi said, is one where people who interact regularly with the community are prepared when they encounter someone with dementia. 

"I have a little card I pass out," she said. "It says 'please excuse my loved one who is suffering from dementia,' and thanks them for understanding."

Dementia Friendly offers training for business owners and employees that 

"Once a business goes through a training they receive a certificate showing they've completed it," Suzi said. "Not that they know everything, but they are then familiar with dementia."

The Black Mountain-Montreat Auxiliary is working to connect the Swannanoa Valley with the resources provided through Dementia Friendly. 

"The more we can educate restaurants, banks, law firms, whoever is out there, the more open and accepting we can make the environment for people who are dealing with dementia," Suzi said. "Obviously, if someone is in a wheelchair there are accommodations that can be made to assist them, but with a brain dysfunction people don't always know that a person is living with dementia."

For more information about Dementia Friendly WNC email