By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s estimated the number of people diagnosed with dementia will double every 20 years. Helping better support that growing population is the goal of a program in western Wisconsin.

St. Croix County is training businesses to identify memory problems in customers to help them make better decisions. Now, it’s helping change the conversation for one man diagnosed with dementia far too early.

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As an iron worker, Craig Smith helped construct some of Minnesota’s most iconic sites — from the Metrodome to Mall of America, all while volunteering as a firefighter and raising a family in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Dementia forced him to leave the work he loved three years ago, at the age of 49.

“It’s been really difficult,” Smith said.

He knew there were signs years before, struggling to finish stories and forgetting safety rules at work. But Smith says his primary care doctor didn’t take them seriously.

“The doctor told him that everyone in their 40’s has signs of memory loss,” His daughter, Emily Smith, said.

Doctors at Mayo Clinic eventually delivered the diagnosis: frontal temporal dementia. It’s a gradual deterioration of the area of the brain that controls decision-making and behavior.

“They tell you what it is and what it does to the brain, and they just say that’s it,” Emily Smith said.

The news lead to a divorce, and has gradually forced Craig’s kids to lose the dad they once knew.

“It hurts. It’s really painful,” Emily said.

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His 26-year-old daughter now serves as his caregiver. Emily believes their story is one to learn from: pushing the medical field for answers earlier to be able to find support sooner.

Nancy Abrahamson is a Dementia Care Specialist at the Aging and Disability Resource Center of St. Croix County.

“You can live well and safely in the community and for a long time,” Ambrahamson said. “That’s where everybody wants to be.”

She’s behind dozens of purple signs put up across St. Croix County, training businesses to be dementia-friendly.

“It’s pharmacies, grocery stores, insurance companies, banks, even factories,” Abrahamson said.

It’s free training part of a grant and state-wide initiative. Employees are taught to recognize symptoms of memory struggles in customers right away to be able to better communicate, keeping people engaged where they already live.

“Just because someone has a broken leg, or diabetes or a heart condition doesn’t mean that we isolate them but we do with dementia,” Abrahamson said.

Emily knows Nancy’s work will help those like her dad, as a daughter is left to navigate a reversal of roles much too soon.

“Yeah, she’s a really good kid,” Craig Smith.

Craig Smith will be honored at Hudson’s annual Hot Air Affair this weekend. He’ll ride in a hot air balloon on Saturday morning along the St. Croix River. Emily is blogging about her dad’s diagnosis.

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They’re chronicling their story on their blog. You can read it here.

Liz Collin