Hospice of Marion County Trains First Responders to Care for Dementia Patients

Florida-based Hospice of Marion County, an affiliate of Empath Health, is training first responders in its community on how to treat dementia patients.

For several years, the nonprofit hospice has been educating family caregivers and others in their community about the experiences of dementia patients and how to better interact with them. More recently, Hospice of Marion County has been expanding that training to include local law enforcement and fire departments, as well as medical students and staff at assisted living facilities, among others.

The training uses a series of tools to simulate symptoms of dementia, related to visual, tactile, auditory senses, their ability to process information and perform certain tasks. The education helps first responders address the unique challenges associated with caring for dementia patients, according to Dr. Mery Lossada, chief medical officer of Hospice of Marion County.


“Most of these patients will develop some kind of problem at home, and they will call 911. That need may be misconstrued as violence or domestic violence. So we want them to be safe and. be aware how to treat this patient or this subject in the best manner for everybody involved and give them the compassionate care that they all need,” Lossada told Hospice News. “It is important that the first responders are aware of the difficult behavior these people may have, how to handle them and how to provide the most safe care.”

In many instances, due to confusion over the circumstances, dementia patients are arrested and taken to jail, Lossada said.

Neurodegenerative and neurological diseases are among the fastest growing diagnoses among hospice and palliative care patients.


About 1 in 9 (10.8%) of seniors 65 and older in the United States will have some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia by 2050, according to a report from the Alzheimer’s Association. That percentage rises with age, as nearly three-quarters of individuals 75 and older have dementia, the report found.

Hospice of Marion County’s virtual training program includes aspects that simulate issues dementia patients experience. This includes special goggles to impair vision, headphones that play a cacophony of sounds, gloves that reduce tactile acuity and other tools. Participants are then asked to complete a series of tasks to see how difficult simple activities of daily living can be for patients with dementia.

This training can help prevent unintentional mistreatment of dementia patients when first responders are called to complex situations, Lossada indicated.

“Anything that could go wrong will go wrong. Most concerning are the issues with safety. Patients tend to escape from their home, so a missing person is a big concern for the community,” Lossada said. “With that comes all kinds of related dangers.”

Among the agencies that have undergone the training is Ocala Fire Rescue, which serves Marion County, Florida, among other areas.

The department is one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1885, and currently employs just shy of 155 firefighters, according to the agency’s Capt. Chris Hickman. About 85% of Ocala Fire Rescue’s calls are medical in nature.

Even prior to the dementia training the department has taken a forward-thinking approach that extends beyond the traditional role of EMS. Before the pandemic, for example, Ocala Fire Rescue established a mobile unit to bring essential health care to local communities, such as vaccinations, diagnostic tests and other services.

The department has also examined new methods of providing more care in the home to reduce the need to transport patients to a hospital and employs a case manager, Hickman said.

He told Hospice News that the partnership with Hospice of Marion County has proven invaluable to its community support programs, emotional and bereavement care for first responders and staff education. The hospice provider has also made home visits with EMS units to provide additional guidance and assistance to responders, families and patients.

The skills that first responders gain in the hospice’s dementia training program also translate to other types of calls, particularly methods for communicating with patients and families in severe distress or disorientation, according to Hickman.

“Emergency medicine has changed. But what is great about what we’re doing now, especially with the partnership with the hospice, is showing more compassion to the people in need. when we engage with them, we’re not just slapping a bandaid on their problem, per se,” Hickman told Hospice News. “We’re helping them to understand the problem, supporting them with other additional resources, but then allowing them to make decisions that affect their future, whether they want to stay at home, be moved to the hospital setting or go into one of assisted living facilities or possibly one of the hospice houses.”

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