Become dementia friendly with Blue Umbrella program

Robin Hull holds up the Blue Umbrella decal.
Robin Hull holds up the Blue Umbrella decal which designates a business as dementia-friendly. Photo credit: Sally Smith.
Posted on: April 26, 2018

Sally Smith

It’s hard to tell if someone has dementia, or Alzheimer’s, by looking at them; they look just like you and me. But there are signs, says Robin Hull of the Alzheimer’s Society of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville. Sometimes there is difficulty paying for a purchase; the person with dementia might hand the cashier both a credit card and cash. Or they might ask for something but not really know what they want. Or they might be looking for a loved one who isn’t there.

Signs of dementia are sometimes subtle and business owners, who deal with the public on a daily, even hourly basis, need to be on the lookout for them. That’s where Hull comes in.

Hull has been with the Alzheimer’s Society for eight years. She’s the Lanark, Leeds and Grenville force behind the Blue Umbrella program. She has a counterpart in Brockville, Mary Campbell, who does the same thing there.

The Blue Umbrella program works with businesses to help them in spotting and assisting clients with dementia. The program is simple, it only takes an hour of the businesses’ time, and it doesn’t cost anything.

Hull is an educator. She has both a nursing and nutrition background, she’s been in health care for 20 years and is very aware that to this day there is still so much unknown about Alzheimer’s and dementia. She does know, though, that “the person with dementia has their own unique history, and you can reach their core even when verbal communication fails. There’s an emotional connection that can still be made.”

Hull has made it her job in the last year-and-a-half to teach businesses in the area how to do that. So far, in Smiths Falls, she has been to Rideau Search and Rescue, Smiths Shoes, CIBC and Two Guys for Lunch. Search and Rescue was a great experience, she says, because the group followed up with a simulation in the Gallipeau Centre (where they’re located) looking for a person pretending to have Alzheimer’s using the tips she handed out during the course. This month she’ll train the town of Smiths Falls’ front line staff.

In Perth she has already been to Commonwell Mutual Insurance, Maximilian’s Restaurant, Robillard Hearing Centre, Martin’s Bus Line, Perth Chiropractic and Longevity Centre, CIBC and Perth Veterinary Clinic.

To make training even more accessible to businesses, Hull will go at any time – before work, after work, lunch hour, or even split the training into two sessions. “I will accommodate them.”

The Living Well with Dementia Blue Umbrella program is in use across Ontario. Not only does it make businesses more aware of how to deal with customers with the disease by looking for visible signs, it also encourages businesses to make their physical space more dementia friendly. For example, Hull explains that people with dementia often “look straight ahead, instead of up or down or around.” Because of this, they miss signs like washroom signs. If signs are placed on the wall or door at eye level, people with Alzheimer’s can “see” them more easily and don’t need to ask or be guided.

She adds that it is often the case “when someone gets a diagnosis of dementia, or even before, he or she feels they don’t want to be an active member of the community anymore. They’re afraid they may show signs of a struggle, like not keeping up with a conversation or not finishing a task that needs to be done.”

When this happens, “a person is more apt to isolate themselves at home. We don’t want to see this,” says Hull. “We want to show them we still want them to be members of the community.”

And this is where The Blue Umbrella program can make a difference. Hull adds that as well as putting signs at eye level, like the outline of a toilet on a washroom door, restaurants can use “picture” menus, that is, using a picture of some of the most popular items along with the written description.

Dementia is not going away: 564,000 Canadians are currently living with the disease, 16,000 Canadians under the age of 65 live with dementia,937,000 Canadians will be living with the disease in 15 years, and 3900 people live with dementia in Lanark, Leeds and Grenville.

But, as well as socialization, there are ways to delay the onset: eat well and healthily, exercise your body and brain, reduce weight, reduce stress, be diligent about keeping up with your doctor’s appointments, and try as much as you can to keep blood pressure and cholesterol in a normal range.

Put all this together, says Hull, and it “could delay the onset by two years and slow the progression.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can make healthy changes. What’s healthy for your heart, is healthy for your brain,” she grins.

After training, a business gets a Blue Umbrella decal to stick in their front window to indicate to families and friends that when they enter these doors there is a safe, friendly environment inside. Hull’s overall goal is to get enough businesses in a town participating to receive the designation of a “dementia-friendly town.”

Interested? To book a one hour Blue Umbrella training session, call 613-345-7392 or toll free 1-866-576-8556. For more information about Alzheimer’s go to If you want to volunteer in any way (Hull will be looking for volunteers to present The Blue Umbrella program in the near future), call the above number and let them know.