Chapel Hill News

Orange County kicks off innovative dementia-friendly business campaign

Coach Dean Smith’s widow talks candidly about Smith’s dementia

Linnea Smith, the widow of former Carolina coach Dean Smith, talks candidly about the late coach’s dementia during a press conference kicking off Orange County's dementia-friendly business campaign Wednesday, November 18, 2015 at the Seymour Cente
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Linnea Smith, the widow of former Carolina coach Dean Smith, talks candidly about the late coach’s dementia during a press conference kicking off Orange County's dementia-friendly business campaign Wednesday, November 18, 2015 at the Seymour Cente

His family and the community helped Dean Smith find meaning in life and avoid isolation while he struggled with dementia, his widow said Wednesday at the launch of a groundbreaking community initiative.

The legendary UNC coach was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, Linnea Smith said. He died in February.

The years in between regularly took him to campus, where Coach Roy Williams kept an office for him and made time to talk, Linnea Smith said.

He also continued to enjoy local restaurants and music, she said, recalling a friend who would stop by to play her husband’s favorite songs on the guitar.

The friend – on an especially tough day – decided to play “Hark the Sound” – UNC’s alma mater, she said. Smith suddenly stood and started singing.

“As the illness progressed, he maybe would not recognize the person or he saw them as familiar but could not quite place who they were or their role in his life,” Linnea Smith said, “and afterwards, he often would not remember the interaction.”

“But in the present moment, he experienced pleasure and meaning, and that makes a huge difference,” she said.

Orange County’s new Dementia-Friendly Business Campaign is aimed at building community support and understanding to help people with dementia and other intellectual and developmental disabilities lead full lives, said Janice Tyler, director of the county’s Department on Aging.

The initiative got a recent boost from a three-year, nearly $900,000 grant from the Administration for Community Living and Alzheimer’s Disease Initiative. It was among 11 grants awarded nationwide and the only one in North Carolina.

The county will provide a 25 percent match and is working with the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce to get more businesses involved. Eleven businesses, including the chamber, have signed up already.

2-hour training

Participating businesses agree to host a two-hour training program for their employees in how to interact with people who may have dementia, said Lorenzo Mejia, owner of Acorn Home Care Services. The company initiated the business program and has trained five businesses so far, he said.

Window decals will help customers identify dementia-friendly businesses, officials said.

Taking the time to listen to people with dementia and understand their needs is important, Hillsborough attorney Colin Austin said. Well-meaning family members may try to step in, but it’s important to remember the person’s opinions still matter, he said.

Staff at The Animal Hospital in Carrboro regularly deal with older pet owners and found the training useful, veterinarian DeWana Anderson said. They learned through the training to ask simple questions and provide clear instructions to someone who has trouble understanding, she said.

“Sometimes it’s pretty frustrating for the person,” she said. “They may know what they want to say and they may know how they want to say it, but when stuff hits them too fast, it can flabbergast them.”

State action plan

It’s a national problem. Roughly 5.1 million Americans, age 65 and older, are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. That number could hit 7.1 million in 10 years, Tyler said. Six in seven people with dementia live with a caregiver, who also needs support, she said.

The state also recognizes the problem, said Mark Hensley, director of Project CARE (Caregiver Alternatives to Running on Empty). Program officials are working with the state Division of Aging and Adult Services to craft the state’s “Dementia Capable” action plan, slated for release in March, he said.

“Businesses are where people not only work but also where they participate in the community, and recognizing and not hiding the stigma around dementia is one of the goals of the dementia-friendly community,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

More information

Learn more about Orange County’s dementia-related programs by calling the Aging Helpline at 919-968-2087 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Another online resource for families caring for relatives in nursing homes is

The Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips to help prevent dementia:

▪ Exercise, including running or swimming, can raise your heart rate and increase blood flow to the brain

▪ Learn more by taking a class at a local college or community center

▪ Quit smoking

▪ Avoid obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes

▪ Work to prevent falls and avoid brain injury by wearing seat belts and helmets

▪ Eat a healthy and balanced diet, such as the MIND diet (

▪ Get quality sleep

▪ Treat depression

▪ Stay engaged with friends and social activities

▪ Challenge your mind