By Benjamin Goodin
Holly Mack sounds a bit out of breath, as she should be. As executive director of Reflections Memory Care in Chatham, she is personally responsible for coordinating that “short list” of events for December, and every month of the year. It’s little wonder that she was the recipient of the Villas of Holly Brook’s Circle of Excellence award.
Linda Snyder, Marketing Director for the Villas, describes Holly as “the most community-minded director we have,” and she has the calendar of events to prove it.
Holly laughs humbly at the compliment. “We like to keep the residents happy and stimulated.” She cannot understate the importance of stimulus to the wellbeing of those in her and the Reflections of Chatham staff’s keeping.
Reflections seems to have a strong understanding of what it takes to bring those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias back into the present. The best way to “light up” a person who may have difficulty participating in the present is to tickle their senses and engage their pasts, hence the wide array of activities at Reflections.
It can be challenging to be the caretaker of a person with memory loss. Harder still, is to watch a loved one slowly lose their memories and their connections to the life they lived. “Just because they [the residents] have the same disease, doesn’t mean they have the same issues, quirks, personality, or degree of memory loss as others.”
“We do our best to pull the individuality out of them,” Holly states. The old adage, “use it or lose it,” is applicable in the case of memory loss during aging, but especially so in the case of those with a form of dementia. Sights, sounds, textures, tastes, even massage are key modalities to sparking engagement for those with Alzheimer’s, and they are possible pathways back into their memories. Knowing this,
Reflections keeps the residents on task and living in the moment by serving up a wide variety of engaging activities, events, and programs. “Relatives are a great source of patient knowledge, but meeting them where they are at, watching their behaviors, learning their likes, does a lot to help us make their time special.”
“Grandma may not remember what she had for lunch yesterday, but she remembers every detail of her wedding day.” Holly declares that the residents in her care still have a lot to share and remember, it just takes a patient ear. Sitting and talking with the residents is the easiest way to connect and stimulate memory. Many of the families make picture and scrap books to ignite recollection in their loved ones. There are even shadow boxes outside of each resident’s room to proudly announce who lives within, with trinkets and fragments of their lives on display. These touches and more help to coax out the people that the residents were, and still are.
“I beat ya,” one resident who used to be a nurse teasingly greets Holly, out for her afternoon rounds. Even though this resident no longer formally practices medicine, she still looks in on other residents, performing rounds just like she used to. For those with memory loss, the things they did often in their lives stick with them, sometimes just out of reach of the conscious mind. Holly explains that they like to give residents opportunities to remember these ingrained tasks and habits: “if a resident used to be a homemaker, we give them the opportunity to engage that by doing things like folding laundry and towels. If they loved to cook, we have a kitchen were they can continue to bake.”
Being able to take on familiar habits returns some stability, some normalcy, and may even spark a memory to be shared.
Family is especially important to the care of seniors with memory loss. They are a primary source of information on the resident for the staff, but they can play a vital role in providing care and comfort. A simple conversation with a long known or long-loved one can be just what a memory care patient needs to brighten their day and ignite familiarity. Opening the facility to frequent visits also benefits the family as well. Often, family members feel a sense of guilt for placing a relative in a memory care facility, but coupling their visits with the skilled care of the staff can be what is medically and emotionally best for the individual with dementia.
Even when family comes to visit often, Alzheimer’s can prove to be an isolating and confusing condition. Becoming unrooted from the present or becoming suddenly lucid can be a very scary experience. Again, Holly stresses that the best practice is to just meet the patients in their current mental space. “…listen to what they fear, sometimes it’s just having someone hold their hand, be there with them, and support them… it puts smiles on their faces.”
For all the work that the staff and Holly do for their residents, none of them are resting on their laurels. “The staff does a lot of continuing education in connection with the Alzheimer’s association,” Holly states. Team members, families, even community members are welcomed to the monthly seminars to hear speakers and learn the latest news in memory care. “We do a lot of activism — fundraisers, walks… We’re a part of the ‘All I Want for Christmas Is a Cure for Alzeimer’s program,” and the list continues.
It is obvious that the staff puts in a lot of additional effort to advocate for their beloved residents, and how couldn’t they, when coming to work feels like coming home to familiar family?
Although it takes a lot of patience and energy to care for those with Alzheimer’s and memory loss, Holly and her staff keep coming to work even though they each have families of their own. “We’ve made Reflections as home-like as we can, as special as we can. They’ve become family here, so it’s easy to come to work.” Who wouldn’t trust giving a loved one over to the skilled hands of a caring family member?
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