A bill sponsored by Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and strongly backed by a former are police chief could help local law enforcement and first responders better assist the needs of the growing number of Minnesotans with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

First introduced in the legislature last year, Draheim’s bill would provide additional funding to the state’s crime alert system, a statewide communications network that enables law enforcement agencies to quickly inform the public about crime.

In addition to providing for a reduction in the program registration fee and other initiatives to increase membership, the network would be directed to use the additional resources to add alert categories, including one for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. While $200,000 is allocated for the network, the centerpiece of the bill is $800,000 which would go to voluntary training grants for law enforcement and first responder agencies to provide training specific to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Earlier this month, Josh Ney, who serves as Manager of State Affairs for the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota and North Dakota, testified on the bill before the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee.

Ney noted that the core of the bill comes out of the legislature’s Silver Alert Working Group, which examined whether the state should create a system to aid in the recovery of missing seniors with dementia, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer's disease or other mental disabilities. Following the Silver Alert Working Group’s report, Ney said that Rep. Cheryl Youakim, D-Hopkins, approached his organization about putting together a bill that would fund specialized training to help law enforcement and first responders aid individuals with Alzheimer’s.

In his conversations with law enforcement, Ney said that training focused on individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia was seen as important and effective. However, law enforcement were concerned that an underfunded mandate could prove a burden.

The issue is of particularly crucial importance, given that nearly 100,000 Minnesotans 65 or older currently have Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association. That number is expected to rise by 20% over the next five years alone — and six in 10 wander, as Ney told the House committee.

Wandering is particularly dangerous for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Unlike individuals with normal cognitive abilities, they might not recognize dangerous conditions in front of them. In order to prevent a tragedy, Ney said it’s crucially important that law enforcement and first responders gain as clear of an idea as possible as to how to interact with individuals whose judgment is impaired by Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“It’s really important that the first responders have some understanding of the issues associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and that they understand just how urgent that call is,” he said. “Whether a person goes missing in Minneapolis, Rosemount or Owatonna, we want to make sure they have the tools and training and resources to find them quickly.”

Now retired-Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson was among the strongest champions of the bill within the law enforcement community, testifying in favor of it to legislators last year. His successor, Police Chief Mark Elliott, said it still has his department’s strong support.

“Any time we can get funding for training, we appreciate it,” Elliott said. “Our officers currently receive this kind of training, and if there was a bill that could assist us in paying for it that would be a huge help.”

Faribault Fire Chief Dustin Dienst noted that local first responders often provide crucial assistance for those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, especially those who live at home rather than a care facility.

In many cases, Dienst noted that first responders have just minutes to react before a situation could become tragic. Given that the stakes are so high, he welcomed the call for additional funding for training programs.

“It would really help us pinpoint where (our First Responders) want to look, what they want to search for and what to be aware of,” he said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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