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Innisfail's health-care heroes create lasting legacy

Health-care workers for Innisfail Dementia Friendly Community Initiative earn award but salute community
MVP Health care award winners
Innisfail's Community Partners in Action Team has been selected as one of the two winners of the 2021 RhPAP Rhapsody Health-care Heroes Award. From left to right are team members Ellen Helgason, community recreation therapist with Alberta Health Services; Jennifer Wood, former dementia friendly community coordinator with the Wolf Creek Primary Care Network and Wendy Evans, a geriatric assessment nurse with the Wolf Creek Primary Care Network. Johnnie Bachusky/MVP Staff

INNISFAIL – It was 15 months ago when the town’s Dementia Friendly Community Initiative was launched.

By the time it was completed earlier this year the initiative was applauded provincially, nationally and even across borders.

Last month, it was announced the driving force behind it, the Community Partners in Action Team was selected, along with the Wabasca/Desmarais Healthcare Centre Nursing Team, as one of the two 2021 RhPAP Rhapsody Health-care Heroes award winners, which recognizes rural Alberta health professionals and teams that demonstrate superior commitment to their patients, health care team, and community.

But the Innisfail’s team’s trio of health-care professionals - Wendy Evans, Ellen Helgason and Jennifer Woods - refused to look at just themselves for their individual roles during the extraordinary 15-month long project that was launched in early in 2020.

Instead, they saluted community collaboration, and the legacy the initiative created for the future of the town and the lives of many who one day will have to face the stark reality of living with dementia.

“It is more of a wrap-around service because we’re including not just health care but including community resources as well. Traditionally people have worked in silos, each person does their own thing. Now we are engaging with each other,” said Evans, a geriatric assessment nurse with the Wolf Creek Primary Care Network, and project lead for the Dementia Friendly Community Initiative, a partnership between Primary Care Wolf Creek, Alberta Health Services, FCSS and the Town of Innisfail.

“Everybody contributes instead of everybody doing a little bit. This is a collaborative approach, which you’d think it would happen naturally but it doesn’t.”

This year’s award judging panel underscored the “marvelous” work by Innisfail’s Community Partners in Action team in its execution of the Dementia Friendly Community Initiative.

This included offering varied programming for community members living with dementia, preparing first responders to better deal with dementia patients, and engaging health professionals and the broader community in education sessions about how to recognize, interact with, and support those living with dementia.

As well, the Innisfail team was given high marks in meeting the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and building “project momentum” through the creation of its highly successful Innisfail Connects virtual programming.

Helgason, a community recreation therapist with Alberta Health Services, said the spark to go online was that the team realized quickly that family members from outside Innisfail can connect with parents or siblings and support each other.

And then there was the pandemic, which clamped down on any in-person services.

“With COVID, that’s where Innisfail Connects came from. It forced us to think outside the box, and how can we support a community during a pandemic,” said Helgason, adding the local seniors centre, public library and Henday Association for Lifelong Learning joined the virtual initiative.

“That was one major project that our group did to be able to provide that support to everybody. It has been a great way to connect a lot of resources in the community to be a much bigger and broader partnership.”

When the Dementia Friendly Community Initiative was first unveiled to the community in early 2020, Wood, a registered nurse, was chosen as the community coordinator. For the next 15 months she was the face of the program and connected with the community immediately, and right through to her last day.

However, Wood is quick to point out that everyone involved, including all participating community groups, made a profound difference to the community.

“I think we have all been able to make a difference to the lives of our friends, of our neighbours and community friends who live in Innisfail. A dementia friendly community just doesn’t benefit people living with dementia and their care partners,” said Wood.

“We also notice that it benefits families. It benefits families and mothers like me and my husband who have small children. We are able to get involved with our family. There is that wonderful inter-generational aspect that we are able to celebrate as well.”

Most importantly for the trio is sustainability. While the official first phase for the dementia initiative ended three months ago, it’s still being carried on by the Community Partners in Action Team.

“We are still running programs. We are still offering anybody that wants the education. We are still offering all those things that Jennifer did because we have it,” said Evans.

“We won’t do it unless it’s going to be sustainable, and it’s what the community wants. It is not what we in health care think citizens need. It is what they tell us they want. That is how we do the creating of those programs and things from what they’re telling us.”

Sometime soon the trio will officially receive their award. But that is secondary to what matters most. It is the legacy of what was created, and then put before the community, and what citizens from all walks of life enthusiastically put back into it, and then embracing all of it with boundless enthusiasm.

“For me, because I work very closely with a lot of people living with dementia and their care partners, I get to see that firsthand and it’s an amazing feeling when you can see the smiles on their faces and how comfortable they are communicating and connecting with people in their community and still feeling they are a very active member in their community,” said Helgason.

“That is really important and that should never change in any community.”

Johnnie Bachusky

About the Author: Johnnie Bachusky

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