In Wisconsin, more than 100,000 people have dementia, and the number is growing. According to Art Walaszek, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, more than 90 percent of dementia patients are likely to experience associated emotional or behavioral problems like depression, paranoia and anxiety. This can be an enormous challenge for those with dementia who face these problems and caregivers who may struggle to maintain their own wellbeing while providing care.

To tackle these related challenges, Dr. Walaszek and Cynthia Carlsson, MD, MS, an associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and Public Health and director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, are spearheading a new project to improve the care of Wisconsin residents living with dementia. The project, funded by an opportunity grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program, will help train future healthcare professionals to detect and treat dementia and help current healthcare providers better assess and manage patients’ behavioral and psychological symptoms.

A new model for care

To improve dementia care, Dr. Walaszek’s team is working with providers at every level of the healthcare system through a partnership with the Wisconsin Alzmeimer’s Institute Dementia Diagnostic Clinic Network. The grant will involve helping primary care clinics, the places where most people interact with the healthcare system, manage the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Walaszek says clinics in the network identified diagnosis and management of these symptoms as a top care priority.

Art Walaszek
Art Walaszek

“The clinic network is a great way of sharing wisdom about the care of people with dementia,” he says.

A new clinical and educational experience has also been designed by the team to help future care providers like medical students and residents gain a better understanding of how to identify and address dementia.

“All of our students will get exposed to working with older adults over the course of their curriculum,” Walaszek says. “I think what’s different about this is having a concentrated, intensive experience where you’re really thinking about how dementia affects the whole person, their family and their community, and how we can increase support for each.”

Cynthia Carlsson
Cynthia Carlsson

Communities of color, including Wisconsinites who are Black, Latinx, or American Indian, can have a higher risk of dementia, according to Walaszek. The grantees are taking a first step toward addressing these disparities by partnering with Milwaukee Health Services, which serves a largely African American population. Walaszek says the team will test and adapt the model with input from these communities to make sure it’s both feasible and acceptable to providers at clinics serving those populations.

The future of dementia care

Dr. Walaszek says that one of the project’s long-term goals is to help people live independently for longer. Further down the road, he would also like to assess patient outcomes to see if those who receive treatment under the new model have fewer symptoms, ER visits and potent psychiatric medication prescriptions.

Walaszek is also excited to partner with people from both urban and rural communities to advance comprehensive, coordinated care for people with dementia. In particular, he says it’s been a pleasure to work with enthusiastic community partners like Richland Center Medical and Milwaukee Health Services, where community-oriented programs are already in place to support dementia care. Clinicians at both clinics have expressed interest in partnering with Walaszek’s team to test teaching models and other care strategies.

“It’s been so great to have local champions who really want to see this happen,” he says. “It’s a good lesson in building successful collaborations.”