Mesa Police Department Educating Officers On Signs Of Alzheimer's

Published: Monday, October 20, 2014 - 8:34am

Police officers are trained to spot trouble. What they’re not always trained to spot is someone living with dementia. In Mesa, however, that’s about to change.

Last spring, the Mesa police department began educating their officers and staff about the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The department, along with the Alzheimer’s Association, is gearing up to provide more in-depth trainings about a condition that affects more than 60,000 people in Maricopa County alone.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s and other dementias, perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s an “old person’s disease.”

It’s not. It affects people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. It also doesn’t just erase memories. People with Alzheimer’s and dementias like frontotemporal degeneration can behave in ways that might cause someone to call the police.

"They lose their impulse control and their temperature gauge doesn’t work as yours or mine would as far as they may be removing clothing in public because they’re hot even though it’s in the middle of winter and it’s not appropriate," said Karen Stegenga, a crime prevention officer with the Mesa Police Department.

She says behaviors like shoplifting, inappropriate conversations or contact with strangers and wandering are issues officers frequently face.

For the past several years, Stegenga has been educating members of the police department to identify the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, signs and symptoms that can mimic the actions of someone who’s under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Cindy Vargos from the Desert Southwest chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association works with Stegenga.

"Particularly Alzheimer’s disease affects the portion of your brain, your visual special ability to stay within the lines, to know how far you are behind the car, and when to brake," Vargos said.

When an officer stops someone with dementia for driving erratically, that individual has to explain and understand the officer’s instructions, which may cause even more problems.

"It may appear that they’re being belligerent or non-compliant when in reality they’re trying to process what an officer or a first responder is saying to them," Vargos said.

Vargos and Stegenga realize this type of training can’t answer all the questions. However, they hope it will plant a seed in the officer’s mind, maybe that person behaving inappropriately is suffering from dementia, a condition that affects millions of Americans and currently has no cure and no means of prevention.