OBX Dementia Friendly Coalition celebrates 10th anniversary

By on June 24, 2023

Local groups work to aid those with dementia and their caregivers

Dorothy Hager (left) smiles with volunteer caregiver Carol Fulton at the anniversary celebration for the OBX Dementia Friendly Coalition. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)

With a smile, Dorothy Hager easily recalls her name, but she needs help from her volunteer caregiver in reciting her age. She turned 90 in May. Hager has dementia, and challenges with memory are characteristic of the degenerative brain disease.

“I love her,” Hager said, looking at her caregiver, Carol Fulton. “We’re good together…a good team.”

Fulton volunteers as a caregiver with the Outer Banks Dementia Friendly Coalition and has assisted Hager for nearly two years now. They attended the coalition’s 10-year anniversary celebration together on June 21, where it took place as an Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce “Business After Hours” event at Jennette’s Pier.

The demographics of Dare County make the coalition’s work all the more important. Its population is significantly older than the national and state average and Alzheimer’s is ranked among the top 10 causes of death here.

“Tonight’s about awareness,” the coalition’s Executive Director Dianne Denny told attendees at the event that was strategically set to align with the Summer Solstice. “It’s the longest day, and…caregivers for those with dementia think that every day’s the longest day.”

Dianne Denny, executive director of the OBX Dementia Friendly Coalition, holds a memory book she made. (Photos by Corinne Saunders/OBV)

Denny knows from experience. A former executive director of assisted living facilities, where she regularly worked with residents with dementia, her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease—the most common form of dementia—in 1995.

The Outer Banks Dementia Friendly Coalition holds two annual fundraisers in October, but Denny told the Voice this celebration was “a friend-raiser.” “We have so many folks who come here to retire, so our older population has grown,” she said. And while “more people are aware of the causes of dementia,” Denny said she wanted to make sure that more community members know how the coalition can help.

“When someone has dementia, their caregiver is maybe uncomfortable taking them out in public because they don’t know what they may do that may not be acceptable to other people, so they isolate themselves,” Denny explained. “Everybody in life needs socialization.”

To this end, the Outer Banks Dementia Friendly Coalition offers a weekly “Caregiver’s Day Out” program, where caregivers drop off their loved ones with dementia at Family Recreation Park in Kill Devil Hills on Monday or at the Virginia S. Tillett Community Center in Manteo on Thursday for three and a half hours.

The program involves stimulating activities—exercise like chair yoga, crafts, music and snacks—for participants, and Dare Arts sends an artist once a month to lead workshops that can range from singing to painting. This provides time for caregivers to “recharge” in whatever capacity they need, Denny said. She hopes to soon expand the program to Hatteras Island.

The coalition also has respite funds available, which can pay for a temporary caregiver if the primary caregiver has an obligation or is taking a trip out of town. It also leads regular educational workshops for community members and gives “dementia friendly training” to interested local businesses.

After training staff at a local business, the coalition provides a purple seahorse door decal that lets the public know that place is dementia friendly. Purple is the nationally designated Alzheimer’s color, and the seahorse mimics the shape of the hippocampus—a part of the brain involved in memory.

About 19 restaurants and 14 other businesses, such as local banks, have received trainings, and Denny said she is always hoping to increase those community partners. The hospital in Nags Head, now called Outer Banks Health, was the first participant in this initiative, and in April 2017, it became the first dementia friendly hospital in North Carolina.

The May/June 2017 “Outer Banks Hospital Health Coach” newsletter said its staff place seahorses on patients’ doors “to indicate the patient has memory or cognitive challenges” and as a reminder for staff “to use their dementia-friendly skills as they provide care.”

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease and for other forms of dementia, according to the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association website. And Dare County has an older population than either the state or nation.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s June 22 press release, “America is Getting Older,” noted that the nation’s median age had increased slightly, to 38.9 years, from 2021 to 2022. Median age is the point at which half of the population is older and half of the population is younger.

North Carolina’s median age is slightly above the nation’s, at 39.4 years, but Dare County’s is nearly a decade older, at 47.8 years, according to Census.gov.

Alzheimer’s is also the No. 7 leading cause of death in Dare County, according to the 2021-2022 Dare County Community Health Needs Assessment.

More than a decade ago, the county’s Health Needs Assessment indicated a need for more services for people with dementia, Denny said, and that’s when she began the task force that morphed into the coalition.

Gentle Experts Memorycare (GEM), incorporated in 1997, was previously the only nonprofit specifically serving that population. GEM Executive Director Gail Sonnesso attended the June 21 coalition event and told the Voice in a follow-up interview that she applauded Denny’s efforts to spread awareness.

“Our population is aging, and they’re living longer,” Sonnesso said. She has peers being diagnosed with dementia. “I took care of their parents; now I’m taking care of them,” she said. “That just breaks my heart—personal friends are going down that path.”

Like the coalition, GEM also offers respite funds and educational workshops. GEM holds a “Memory Café” program that caregivers attend with their loved ones with dementia and “Gen Z” Zoom meetings that Gail’s husband Angelo sets up. She teaches a continuing education course on dementia that is open to any interested community members at College of The Albemarle. A local grant funding opportunity allows nurse aids to take the course and get paid for hands-on work with people with dementia, she said.

Increasing one’s understanding of the disease allows people to have “a better caregiving journey,” Sonnesso noted. “Early-onset dementia is very genetic,” she said of people diagnosed before age 65. “The other ones are a combination of genetics and luck of the draw.”

The goal of GEM programming is to “give them a life where they’re successful, and happy, and connected,” Sonnesso said.

Denny agrees.

“They may not remember it this afternoon, but this morning when we were singing songs and dancing around—at that point, they were smiling and laughing, and that does my heart good,” she said. “At that moment, they were very happy, and you’ve got to take every minute you can get.”

For more information, visit www.outerbanksdementiafriendlycoalition.com and https://gemdayservices.org.



  • Glenn

    Wonderful story of a very difficult disease…thanks for sharing it and highlighting the many challenges faced by both those suffering from the condition as well as the dedicated caregivers who care for them.

    Saturday, Jun 24 @ 7:29 pm
  • Jay

    Ditto what Glenn wrote. I witnessed my mother in-laws journey with Alzheimer’s from beginning to brutal end. It is a horrible disease.

    Sunday, Jun 25 @ 7:22 am
  • The Captain

    Our appreciation to all since this is such a critical issue. I personally have had interaction with the GEM Organization, since they recognized the need way before the County got on board. Gail and Angelo’s Care and Dedication have outstanding.

    Sunday, Jun 25 @ 8:05 am