I’ve seen the looks, so I know what it feels like.

The observer probably didn’t mean to be hurtful, but was just curious. Maybe incredulous. Why in the world is that woman picking up the food on her plate with her fingers? Why is she letting the self-serve ice cream machine continue to run after her cone is full?

The disdainful glare is testament to the discomfort of being in the same public place with someone who has apparently lost her mind.

Little did the spectator know that was precisely the problem. The woman, my mother, had Alzheimer’s.

Going out for supper was something Mom and Dad enjoyed in their later years. After Mom was diagnosed, Dad wanted to keep things as normal as possible. So, when I came to town, we usually went to her favorite spot for supper. She really liked the soft-serve ice cream there. Dad let her have as much as she wanted.

I remember being uncomfortable and angry when I saw people staring at her. I wanted to shout “Don’t you get it?! She isn’t stupid. She isn’t backward. She has a disease, damn it! She can’t help it!”

If only other people understood. If only they knew how to react, how to respond, how not to stare. How to be kind to her.

Fast forward to January of this year, and I learn that my Bluffton-Hilton Head community is one of the very first in the country to initiate a program to become a dementia-friendly community.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Memory Matters, a local non-profit that serves people with dementia and their caregivers, the Purple Angel Project is under way, making available a free 40-minute training class to teach all of us how to better accommodate, accept and appreciate those affected by memory loss – and their caregivers.

Our staff at The Bluffton Sun recently took the class. Daniel Lentz, whose position was funded by a grant for this project, is the energetic lead instructor.

Daniel tells me he has held about 65 training sessions to date. The groups have included financial and insurance groups, attorneys, health agencies, churches, non-profits, restaurants and thrift stores – and a newspaper.

Edwina Hoyle, executive director at Memory Matters, said the time is right for this program because the numbers of those affected by dementia are only going to get higher. By becoming a dementia-friendly community, we can help our neighbors maintain some sense of normalcy by including and supporting them. She reminds us that it takes a village to effect systemic change.

Statistics (from researchers a whole lot smarter than me) indicate that 11 percent of South Carolina seniors have dementia, and in five years it will be closer to 20 percent. That means one in five of my friends will have some form of memory loss. One in five of your friends too.

Caregivers often take their loved ones with dementia out to meals, or shopping, or to run errands. Wouldn’t it great if strangers didn’t stare and grimace? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a server or receptionist or clerk said hello with a warm smile to the person with dementia?

Why not start now to help make our community safer, more supportive, more welcoming for those who have plenty of other problems to deal with? The training is free for any group that wants to learn, understand and help. Call 843-842-6688 and find out how your group can be at the forefront of a changing attitude toward this often shunned segment of our world.