For people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, the simplest elements of everyday life can become huge stressors. A cheerful flower print on an area rug turns into dropped petals they’re trying to pick up. A shadow cast by an easy chair becomes a hole in the floor they’re afraid to fall into. Even bright sunlight streaming through a patio door can cause them to freeze in their tracks, disoriented and agitated. Specialized assisted living establishments are working hard to address these issues in what are now known as Memory Care Communities.
About 12 percent of Vermont’s population is now over the age of 65, with people over 55 set to increase that percentage to 20 by the year 2025. Of those people, about 12,000 suffer from Alzheimer’s and other dementias, a figure also expected to rise exponentially over the next few decades. Traditional assisted living communities have filled a large need for people who want to remain independent with the extra assurance that help and support is nearby. However, as education surrounding memory loss and dementia increases, so has the awareness that assisted living is not a one-size-fits-all model.
Several assisted living communities in Vermont have expanded to include specialized memory care residences, where attention to details particular to the needs of dementia sufferers is paramount. In the GardenSong Neighborhood at the Eastview in Middlebury, the 18 memory care apartments are arranged along two hallways that form cul-de-sacs with the common space and dining room in the center of it all, accessible from all sides. “The purpose of the layout is to allow for people to wander,” explains Lauren Bierman, Director of Health Services at Eastview. “They should never meet a wall.”
Another space very popular with the residents is the Namaste Room, where residents can come to relax in a softly lit space with aromatherapy, fish tanks, comfortable recliners and staff available for guided meditation, massage and other relaxation activities.
More intimate dining rooms and common areas also promote feelings of security and togetherness. “I’m a real fan of keeping it small,” says Cathy Williams, Executive Director at Mansfield Place in Essex Junction. “Walking into a big, huge dining room and navigating where to sit can fill someone with anxiety.”
Williams explains that being able to pattern behavior and get used to a smaller space helps residents feel comfortable. Memory care communities also provide a higher staff to resident ratio than traditional assisted living, and train their staff with education specialized to dementia care. Since staff members eat with the residents, someone is always there to help without creating a big diversion. According to Williams, becoming part of a memory care community helps people with dementia get back into normalizing everything about their daily routine with no judgment or isolation.
Many families still struggle with the decision of whether to move their loved one into a memory care community. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 30,000 unpaid caregivers for people with dementia in Vermont, mostly spouses and adult children. Caregiver fatigue is a huge concern and often leads to caregiver burnout and serious health problems. “There’s a pervasive notion that you fail when someone leaves the home,” says Tara Graham, Executive Director at the Residence at Quarry Hill, currently under construction in South Burlington. However, Graham adds, often staying at home when someone doesn’t recognize anything anymore can become more confusing and unsettling. The simplified and calming ways memory care communities are structured can alleviate a lot of the daily angst and allow for families to spend quality time together again. Graham explains that specialized communities can provide the space and support for families to get together and reconnect with their loved one. As Mansfield Place’s Williams puts it, “they get the heavy lifting [of caregiving] taken care of, go home, get sleep and are fresh for the next day.”
Lighting and décor choices are key to creating calming and safe living spaces for people with dementia. At the Converse Home in Burlington, the doors that access utility rooms or other non-resident areas are painted the color of the walls so that they aren’t as noticeable, whereas the doors to resident areas are vibrant and contrasting colors. Resident living areas also have pocket doors into the bathrooms so that the line of sight is enhanced for the residents. Joyce Touchette, executive director at the Converse Home, agrees that one of the main benefits to their community lies in the safe places that exist for families to eat, relax and enjoy activities together again. Being part of a larger community that understands and appreciates the challenges of memory loss creates support for both residents and their families. Touchette shares a story of one woman who came to visit her mother who wasn’t in the mood to see her at that time, so she ended up visiting with one of the other residents because the feeling of community is so strong.
Corporate Memory Care and Resident Engagement Manager Josh Freitas of The Residences at Shelburne Bay, Otter Creek and soon Quarry Hill, spends a lot of time studying the effects of dementia as he pursues his PhD in neuroscience. “People with dementia can learn,” Freitas says. “It just takes them longer.”
With certified dementia practitioners working with residents every day, people can become reengaged with activities of daily living in their own time and often slow down the progression of the disease. And, Freitas adds, specialized memory care communities can enhance this learning by creating the most supportive environments possible. For example, meals at The Residences are served on yellow plates, as the color yellow has been found to hold attention. All of the staff wear lime green uniforms so that residents always know whom to turn to for help. Lime green happens to be the last color that people with dementia can see after others have faded into gray. Further efforts to keep residents engaged include activities centered around the four Pillars of Engagement: social, emotional, cognitive and physical. With baseline memory assessed when residents move in and tracked over regular intervals, staff can assess how residents are benefitting from their environment.
All of the memory care communities encourage residents to stay involved with activities they enjoyed before their illness began, and help them tap into their long term memory. Families are crucial to achieving that goal, and when the memory care home can take over the bulk of the caregiving, family members are free once again to reconnect emotionally. Cathy Michaels, Director of Community Relations at The Arbors in Shelburne, says she’s glad that people are learning more about the resources available to them. “I hope the taboo will be gone,” she says, referring to the guilt people feel for having their loved one leave their home. “It’s not something to be ashamed of, and it allows for a better quality of life for yourself and lets you just be the son or daughter again.”