Memory care center aims to provide dignity, sense of home

Everything at Mt. San Antonio Gardens’ new Oak Arbor memory care center is designed to suit the habits, needs and preferences of the people who live there.

Each of the 11 residents ensconced in the center, which celebrated its grand opening on June 23, is unique, but they share two things in common. They are suffering from dementia. And they want to live somewhere that feels like home.

That home, adjacent to MSAG’s Oak Tree Lodge assisted living center, is well-appointed. As you enter Oak Arbor, you encounter a large space encompassing a kitchen where residents can engage in cooking therapy, a dining area and a TV-equipped sitting room.

It’s been decorated with strings of origami paper cranes, made for Oak Arbor by Mt. San Antonio Gardens residents, which in Japan represent peace, hope and good fortune.

There is also a piano, where volunteers play music for the residents, topped with instruments like drums and a ukulele for music therapy. Memory Care Coordinator Brooke Harper’s mother-in-law is Ellen Chase Verdries, who runs the Folk Music Center, so the instruments come courtesy of the storied Claremont music shop.

 

Music is a big part of life at Oak Arbor. Each resident has an iPod loaded with his or her favorite music. One woman is pretty quiet most of the time, but she comes alive when she watches the old Lawrence Welk variety show, which often highlights songs from the 1940s and ‘50s.

“Something beautiful happens with music,” Ms. Harper said. “It can carry so much nostalgia.”

Meals can also make for magic moments. The residents, Ms. Harper said, are a family.

“It’s moving to watch them interact and become friends. They keep each other company, sharing the simplicity of enjoying a good meal,” she shared.

Sometimes family members join the residents for meals.

“One resident, when her husband comes for dinner, she sets the table specifically for them,” Ms. Harper said. “She may be cognitively impaired, but she knows it’s a special occasion.” 

When the COURIER stopped by the center prior to its official launch, two residents were relaxing in the great room, one cradling a therapy doll and another holding a stack of books. The latter greeted the staff members, who prefer to be called care partners, warmly.

Mary Jean Neault has recently become vice president of marketing and community outreach for Mt. San Antonio Gardens. Before that, she worked as transitions coordinator, giving support to Gardens residents and their families as they moved from one level of care to another.

There’s something she keeps in mind. “They’re not at our place of work. We’re in their home first and foremost,” Ms. Neault said. 

There are locked doors at Oak Arbor so residents don’t wander off. Once inside, however, there is space and freedom to wander pleasantly and at will. The halls—which open into airy bedrooms—are dotted with nooks where you can leaf through books, work puzzles or just sit near a sun-lit window.

One of the center’s most charming amenities is an outdoor patio, filled with aromatic plants, residents can stroll through any time, day or night. There is also a raised-bed planter where residents can plant herbs as garden therapy.

“The walkway is designed to be meandering because part of dementia is wandering,” Ms. Harper said. 

Residents’ lives have a certain amount of structure. They take three strolls a day and engage in music and art therapy. Each resident has a sketchpad in order to encourage expression. One man at Oak Arbor was a professional sculptor and particularly enjoys drawing, according to Ms. Harper.

Still, there is no rigidly scheduled pace for activities.

“They’re not forced to do anything here. We’re honoring the person,” Ms. Harper said. “If a woman’s routine is to stay up late and watch a movie with her husband, she’s not going to suddenly want to go to bed early.”

It’s never business as usual at Oak Arbor.

“You can’t think linearly about dementia care. It’s not linear, so it’s really imperative to be an abstract thinker. We challenge our care partners to think outside the box,” Ms. Harper said. 

Dementia is poorly understood by many people, according to Ms. Neault.

“It is not a natural part of aging. It’s a disease,” she said.

She waves away the idea of so-called senior moments, emphasizing we all can be forgetful at times. “It’s not that you lost your keys,” Ms. Neault said. “It’s that you don’t know that you lost your keys.”

Ms. Harper says while Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known, there are a hundred different forms of dementia. The numbers are sobering and rising: a person has a one in six chance of developing dementia. It can also hit surprisingly early.

Ms. Harper’s own mother got Alzheimer’s disease at 42. She was diagnosed at 47.  When someone you love gets dementia, “there’s this grief because the death happens before physical death. The soul becomes blanketed,” she said.

Ms. Harper has chosen to put her grief to good use by working in memory care. “Policy should be informed by experience,” she said.

An integral part of the “beautiful interdisciplinary team” that planned and continues to develop the new unit, Ms. Harper says Oak Arbor care partners are duty-bound to look for the person inside the affliction.

“I think you can always find the silver lining, the beauty in the heartbreak,” she said.

She acknowledges that the thought of getting dementia can be scary. That’s why she feels it’s important for people—whether they are residents at Mt. San Antonio Gardens or of the wider Claremont community—to know that Oak Arbor exists.

Yes, the residents have been dealt a tough hand, but they are part of a program that focuses on “finding the small joys on a daily basis,” Ms. Harper said.

There is currently space for three more residents at Oak Arbor, and the memory care center is hoping to expand to include room for more. For information, call Mt. San Antonio Gardens at (909) 624-5061.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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