David Nisbet’s father died of dementia this summer, and he wanted to do something to honor his dad and also help other families cope with the sadness of watching a loved one’s memory slip away.
Nisbet, 58, who helped care for his father, Dinsmore Nisbet, knew how challenging it can be to take a person with dementia out in public, especially for a meal.
He had done it plenty of times, but he would brace himself, fearful his father might have an outburst, and he would sometimes feel sidelong glances from other customers. He wished there was a place nearby to hold a “dementia night” so memory loss patients and their caregivers could know they were welcome.
Nisbet, who manages four quick-service oil change businesses and frequently commutes between his home in Lexington, Ky., and Huntington, W.Va., found just the place: Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, a landmark family restaurant in downtown Huntington, started by a couple who both died of dementia-related causes.
Bradley Tweel, who co-manages the restaurant with his aunt, Jimmie Carder, quickly signed on with Nisbet’s plan and agreed to hold a “dementia friendly” night at Jim’s at least once a month. The first one is slated for Wednesday.
"We didn’t hesitate — we’re happy to help out and give people with dementia or Alzheimer’s in Huntington a welcoming environment,” said Tweel, 36.
"We know what people with dementia and their caregivers go through,” he said. “We know that they could probably use a night out together, and we wanted to show that we completely understand."
Tweel’s grandparents, Jim and Sally Tweel, always welcomed everyone at the restaurant they opened in 1938. “That’s the legacy we want to continue,” Tweel said.
Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, famous for its spaghetti, rib-eyes and coconut cream pie, has been visited over the years by everyone from President John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali to Dustin Hoffman.
Nisbet, who recently founded Dementia Friendly Huntington, plans to train the waitstaff at Jim’s on how to connect with people who have Alzheimer’s.
"Make eye contact, smile and don't give them seven daily specials to choose from,” he said. “Maybe give them two choices.”
If a customer with dementia says something offensive, never take it personally, Nisbet said.
"There's a guy I see every week who tells me, 'You need to lose weight,'" he said. “I just smile and say, 'You know what? You're right.' You can't get your feelings hurt. Just keep talking and give them a compliment."
Almost 6 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Nisbet, who volunteers at an adult day-care center in Lexington, knows the heartbreak that consumes a family when a loved one is diagnosed with some form of dementia.
When his father was diagnosed in May 2015 with Lewy Body Dementia (symptoms are often mistaken for Parkinson’s disease), “I googled it and lost my breath,” he said.
When out in public with his father, Nisbet said he often spent a lot of time explaining that his dad's erratic behavior was due to dementia. He eventually had some cards printed to show people at restaurants and grocery stores.
"Please be patient,” read the card on one side. “The person with me has dementia/Alzheimer's disease. Thank you for understanding."
Nisbet laughed as he recalled going out to a Mexican restaurant with his dad, who ordered “two whiskeys and a water” like the characters on his favorite television show, “Gunsmoke."
"I just flashed the card to the waiter and mouthed, ‘iced tea,’ " he recalled. “I found that people would bend over backward to help us once I showed them that card. In Huntington, my hope is that the same thing will happen when people show up for ‘dementia friendly’ night.”
He and Tweel both have a hunch “dementia friendly” will also prove to be “business friendly.” While there are already some restaurants, including in North Carolina, that label themselves ‘dementia friendly,’ Nisbet and Tweel hope even more businesses will follow suit.
“Families are often afraid to take their loved one out, but if companies would come forward and make them feel welcome, it’s a win-win for all,” Nisbet said. “As it is now, too many people feel compelled to hide away a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s. We’re hoping to change that.”
Tweel said he will know his first “dementia friendly” night was a success if people leave happy and full, as if they have had a home-cooked Italian dinner at the home of a close relative or friend.
“To be completely honest, we’re dementia-friendly every day at Jim’s,” he said. “But on ‘dementia friendly’ night? You can bet we’ll go all out.”