NEW RICHMOND -- Nancy Abrahamson, dementia care specialist with St. Croix County’s Aging and Disability Resource Center, is retiring next month after serving area families and caregivers for 15 years.

Her legacy, according to those she has served and worked with, is one of care and compassion and a commitment to bringing dementia out of the shadows and into the light.

Abrahamson has been a social worker for 43 years and her focus has been on senior citizens almost from the beginning.

She began working specifically in the field of dementia treatment more than 30 years ago when she helped establish the first memory care unit in Minnesota in 1988 at a Good Samaritan facility in the Twin Cities. She would help to establish similar units in 23 other care homes and travel the state training staff.

“It was an exciting time. I got to work with the movers and shakers, the top professionals and with the Alzheimer’s Association in a then emerging field. We were kind of figuring out as we went day to day creating our own programs, finding and training good staff in behavioral interventions that respected who people were pre- and post-dementia,” Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson took a four year hiatus to care for her ill mother, and also worked in the family business. But by 1991 she was back working with seniors, this time at the Lutheran Home in River Falls and from there, with the Alzheimer’s Association in 1999.

Nancy Abrahamson (center) has worked closely with colleagues JoAnne Friedell (left) and Bonnie Edlund, St. Croix County adult protection workers, to provide help and support to area families. Community members will have an opportunity to thank Abraham during a retirement open house Dec. 3. Meg Heaton / Contributor
Nancy Abrahamson (center) has worked closely with colleagues JoAnne Friedell (left) and Bonnie Edlund, St. Croix County adult protection workers, to provide help and support to area families. Community members will have an opportunity to thank Abraham during a retirement open house Dec. 3. Meg Heaton / Contributor

She came to work at the ADRC in St. Croix County in 2005, providing support to caregivers and managing the Interfaith Volunteer Program. In 2014, in what was then a state pilot program, she became the county’s first dementia care specialist, one of only a half dozen across the state. In 2017 the state made the program permanent in recognition of not only the rapid increase of dementia cases but also the importance of connecting families to resources.

“It is clear that whenever possible and for however long, people want to stay in their homes. It is what they want and it saves money as well. We need to provide those people and their families and caregivers, the support they need to do that,” she said.

Abrahamson says the biggest challenge about her job is how broad it is, but at its core are the families living with dementia.

She is available for “housecalls,” to meet individuals and families to help assess the situation and figure out what support they need.

“I think the biggest misconception about dementia is that you lose everything at once. It is a progressive disease and there is lots we can do to slow that progression and prevent loss of function. Keeping people engaged with their surroundings, their interests, their families makes a huge difference in how fast dementia progresses,” Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson believes the sooner families seek help, the better. And in some cases, it may not be dementia, but a medical condition like thyroid, dehydration or medication interactions causing symptoms.

TESTIMONIALS: Making a difference - Nancy Abrahamson

If it is dementia, Abrahamson’s experience is “once we name it and talk about it, there is a huge relief.” Both the person who has dementia and their caregivers want to understand what is happening but sometimes resist what comes next.

Planning is key and Abrahamson works closely with families to help them navigate their new relationship with their loved one as well as the impact the disease can have legally and financially by referring them to those who can help.

She is in regular contact with caregivers, who need as much, if not more, support than those they care for in many instances. In addition to listening to them, she refers them such services as respite care and support groups that can help ease the stress, assist them in making short- and long-term plans for their loved one, and, perhaps most important of all, listen.

The other important component of her job is that of community educator.

“It’s kind of ground zero -- educating everybody from family to medical folks, to employers, to whole communities about what dementia and memory loss is and isn’t and how we can help make things better,” she said.

St. Croix County Dementia Care Specialist Nancy Abrahamson will retire next month marking the end of a career advocating for families dealing with dementia. Photo courtesy of Meg Heaton
St. Croix County Dementia Care Specialist Nancy Abrahamson will retire next month marking the end of a career advocating for families dealing with dementia. Photo courtesy of Meg Heaton

To that end, Abrahamson has been active in making communities across the county “dementia friendly.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a dementia friendly community is where people with dementia are understood, respected and supported. People with dementia then can continue to live in the way they want to and in the community they choose.

Abrahamson has held dementia friendly trainings with First Responders, numerous area businesses and community organizations, local governments, at schools and at churches across the county. And she was instrumental along with a host of volunteers, in the formation of the Dementia Friendly Communities Coalition. The coalition most recently organized the St. Croix Valley Lifelong Singers, a dementia friendly community choir that holds annual concerts in June and for Veterans Day.

At the core of her work with everyone is to decrease the stigma associated with dementia and to promote understanding of the disease, how it progresses and how to advocate.

“I like to tell people I am their tax dollars at work. But more than that I feel like I have really contributed to making things better. If I helped to smooth this journey for a family, well then I’ve done my job,” Abrahamson said.

There will be am open house for Abrahamson 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 3 at the ADRC, 1752 Dorset Lane, New Richmond.

For information about Dementia Care services, caregiver support groups and the Day Away respite care program, contact the ADRC at 715-381-4411.