What is a dementia-friendly police officer? Interview with Senior Sergeant Ricky Zimitat

Senior Sergeant Ricky Zimitat is the Officer in Charge at the Woorabinda Police Station. Woorabinda is located in Central Queensland, approximately two hours inland from Rockhampton. 

Senior Sergeant Zimitat has been leading the way to help his community become more dementia-friendly over the past two years. We spoke to Senior Sergeant Zimitat about dementia-friendly policing, how he got involved and what outcomes he has seen in his community. 

What does a dementia-friendly police officer mean to you?

I joined the Queensland Police Service to make difference and to make the community a safer place by getting offenders off the streets and holding them accountable for the crimes they have committed. 

I soon realised that putting people in front of the Magistrate was only a small portion of the role of a police officer especially in a small community.

Prior to becoming a Dementia Friend, I went to numerous jobs, dealt with the people on that job and took the desired action for a successful outcome. Successful for who? And how did I measure success? I completed the job and moved onto the next, but always thought about what sort of lasting impression I left with the people involved.

I realised I was starting to treat people as a number and just a job. I felt as though I lost part of my purpose of becoming a police officer to make a difference in my community, and I was fast becoming a police robot, jumping through the required hoops to get the job done.

I was still passionate about my job and helping my community, but I was missing something. I then moved from Rockhampton Tactical Crime Squad to Sergeant Officer in Charge of Baralaba Police Station, where I felt a sense of ownership in the community. Community members were people, not just a number or a job.

I used jobs as ways to improve someone’s life and community policing was a daily event for me (from Adopt-a-Cop to chatting to our elderly community members in the street).

I soon realised many community members were living with dementia but at the time I had a limited understanding of dementia and would say that people were getting old and slowly losing their marbles.

An opportunity presented itself to help the Queensland Police Service become dementia- friendly by becoming a Dementia Friend.

I completed the training and took on the role to get a better understanding of dementia and how I could better serve my community. I soon realised that dementia in an aging community was very common and a lot of the calls for service were related to people living with dementia. Police turning up to a job would sometimes embarrass the person living with dementia as they did not like the attention they were getting from onlookers. 

I decided to head to the streets with leaflets in hand and spoke with key stakeholders (mostly the informants from previous jobs) and started the education process about dementia and how to become a Dementia Friend.

Personally, this gave me a better sense of understanding and ownership of community problems and concerns.

I was better educated to assist people living with dementia and I helped support people living with dementia to not feel embarrassed, continue to stay connected with their community, remain somewhat independent and pass onto others the knowledge I had obtained.

What dementia-friendly activities or initiatives have you implemented in your community?

The key to making a dementia-friendly community was initially having the conversation with members of the community and key stakeholders and helping them better understand dementia and how they could more effectively work with people living with this disease.

I targeted key local businesses, local government agencies, council employees, the local post office, rural supply store, newsagency, supermarket, service providers, local garage/ service stations, hospital, aged care providers, pharmacies, schools and the local mine.

I encouraged Queensland Police Service staff, Queensland Fire and Emergency Service members and Queensland Ambulance Service members to become dementia-friendly and all employees to become Dementia Friends.

I organised an information session and followed up with each group to continue positive momentum with education in the community.

What outcomes have you seen from the dementia-friendly initiatives or activities in your community? 

The community as a whole had a better understanding and appreciation of what people with dementia live with daily and that what may appear out of the ordinary to others was normal for a person living with dementia.

I went from using the expression of losing their marbles to people needing assistance.

Community and key stakeholders took ownership by self-educating and becoming dementia friends, receiving online training and further engaging with people living with dementia by having a better understanding of people suffering dementia.

People in the Baralaba community started to assist people with dementia when they were out and about, providing extra support with tasks such as grocery shopping and at the post office.

Community members started to recognise unusual behaviours and act accordingly, treating people with respect and protecting their dignity

When speaking with people with dementia they felt more comfortable in the community.

Why is it important for police officers to be involved with dementia-friendly initiatives?

To assist vulnerable persons in the community become better educated and help make life a little easier and a little better for people in their community living with dementia.

Each officer can make a difference with a small action or gesture, especially for those that need us the most.

How can other police officers get involved with dementia-friendly initiatives in their communities?

I encourage Queensland Police Service members to get out and about in the community and make it a part of your daily conversations with key groups.

I urge you to get momentum with key stakeholders, talk to people with dementia and get to know them.

It is well worth it as it resulted in some great outcomes for those living with dementia and also for the Queensland Police Service in terms of reduced calls for service.

Reduced calls for service were noted in Baralaba, Mount Morgan and Wowan.

Police in these areas having a better understanding of dementia would use their knowledge of dementia (from becoming dementia friends) to educate others in the community to become dementia friends and how to recognise signs.

If you would like to know more about becoming a Dementia Friend or helping to make your community more dementia-friendly please visit our website dementiafriendly.org.au.