Here to Help

First Link Referral Program reaches out to those who are newly diagnosed


A dementia diagnosis is a lot to process, and having to figure out how to get support can add to the stress. The First Link Referral Program is here to help.

Offered province-wide thanks to a partnership between the Alzheimer Society of Calgary, Alzheimer Society of Alberta & Northwest Territories and Alberta Health, the program aims to link individuals and their caregivers with appropriate care and support as soon as possible after a diagnosis is made.

The program is unique in having trained staff make contact with those in need of support, rather than waiting for individuals to reach out themselves.

“While a lot of places will hand people a brochure for their local Alzheimer Society, people don’t always pick up the phone to call. First Link takes that step out,” explains Paul Bartel, manager of learning and support services at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. He says when people are diagnosed with dementia, they aren’t always told what it is and how it will affect their lives.

Bartel says many of the referrals the program receives are for newly diagnosed individuals in need of some basic information. An initial conversation, he explains, might address what dementia is and touch on some of the things the person or family may want to start thinking about and planning for.

In other cases, people need emotional support. The Alzheimer Society of Calgary says individuals can often feel grief-stricken and overwhelmed, and connecting them to resources early on can help them live well with dementia.

“It’s a game-changing diagnosis for anyone,” Bartel says.

Here’s how it works:
Physicians, health-care professionals or community service providers send a referral to the First Link Referral Program. Referrals can be for individuals with dementia, their family members or caregivers. The Alzheimer Society then gets in touch to assess the situation, and the individual is then connected with appropriate resources and follow-up. In Calgary, a team of three social workers responds to referrals.

Bartel says many individuals contacted want information about driving and safety, so the conversation might address strategies to keep individuals safe.

For some with an early diagnosis who are doing well, Bartel says, the program may suggest following up in six months. He emphasizes that one of the aims of the program is to build an ongoing relationship with individuals, so follow-up is relatively open-ended.

First Link also connects individuals to other community agencies in Calgary, including AHS Home Care, The Way In and the Memory P.L.U.S. (Practice, Laughter, Useful Strategies) program, which supports individuals with mild dementia and their caregivers.

The First Link Referral Program is growing fast. In the last three months of 2017, it received 61 referrals; that number jumped to 65 in just the first two months of 2018.

Meanwhile, Bartel says, individuals are always welcome to call directly. It’s free and no physician’s appointment or referral is necessary.

In Calgary, the number is 403-290-0110 or toll free 1-877-569-HELP (4357).  [ ]