Seniors & Aging

Adult Day Health Center offers range of services for chronically ill adults and their families

Bellingham resident Bud Fish, 79, resists going to the Adult Day Health Center. He tells his wife, Varya, that he feels like he’s going to prison. He wants to know why he can’t stay at home with her.

She hears the litany before she drops him off at the program he has been attending since March 2012, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Hours later, after socializing with others and after exercise that includes riding a recumbent bicycle, a happier Bud is home eating a snack and telling her about his day.

“It’s socialization. There’s also mental stimulation. I know it makes a difference,” Varya, 72, says. “I know this program is good for him because he’s happier. He’s just more with it. He’s not as depressed seeming. He’s more engaged. He’s more lively because of this program.”

Her husband of 52 years is a retired elementary school teacher who taught mainly at Roosevelt Elementary School. He was known as the “beloved Mr. Fish,” a man who took up golf in retirement and could fix anything. After he retired and before she did from her career as a paralegal in 2013 to care for him, he felt his job was to keep his wife happy. They had great talks, including about politics and current events, Varya says.

They still converse, but now she has to remember to keep it slow, short, simple and to count to five after Bud has said something to make sure he’s done talking. She needs to enjoy their conversations while she can, Varya says.

“We’re going to reach a point where I’m not going to be able to hear this dear man’s voice,” she says.

About 5 million Americans who are 65 years or older have Alzheimer’s, a figure that could reach 13.8 million by 2050, according to the journal Neurology. The most common kind of dementia, Alzheimer’s, is a progressive disease that destroys brain cells that control thought, memory and language. In later stages, it becomes difficult to walk, speak and swallow. There is no cure.

Bud is among the 78 clients going to the Adult Day Health Center, located at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center’s South Campus in Bellingham. Of that total, 60 have some form of dementia.

The program will be at the South Campus until June or July 2015, when Christian Health Care Center is expected to start offering those services to all Whatcom County residents at its new 5,700-square-foot building in Lynden.

PeaceHealth stopped operating its Adult Day Health program Dec. 31, but is keeping it going at the South Campus temporarily through an agreement with Christian Health Care Center. Under the agreement, PeaceHealth is leasing the space to Christian Health Care Center for a nominal amount and has agreed to provide program assistance and operational support, such as food, security and janitorial services. The seven employees in the PeaceHealth program were offered employment by Christian Health Care Center.

The program has been in Bellingham for 37 years.

“Instead of this being a CHCC project, we feel we have become stewards of the long tradition of caring,” says Anita Tallman, director of Christian Health Care Center. “It is as if we have been handed a family heirloom to care for and protect.”

The program’s services include skilled nursing and occupational therapy, social and activity groups, and a hot lunch. Such programs help people with chronic health conditions, including memory loss, depression, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The aim is to help older adults continue living in their homes instead of needing more expensive care, such as that at nursing homes, prematurely, and to provide a break for their family caregivers during the hours the clients are in the program.

“We know that most people with chronic health concerns prefer to live at home, but need support in order to do so,” says Mary Lynn Palmer, a nurse at Adult Day Health Center.

Providing help and support to caregivers also is an important service.

“We decided a long time ago that the person’s caregiver is as important to us as the person we’re caring for, because if the caregiver does not stay well and strong, then it affects the person we’re caring for,” Palmer says. “We try to look at the whole family unit.”

Palmer explains how Adult Day Health services help the physical and mental health of clients:

“We’re always trying to be detectives,” Palmer says. “When caring for people with memory loss, we need to be especially attentive to changes we see, because they may not be able to tell us they are not feeling well.”

“Exercise is an important part of our day,” Palmer says. “We want to improve endurance, strength and balance. We take fall risk very seriously and work hard to decrease the risk for each person.”

“It is important for people to have the opportunity to socialize, to be stimulated mentally and to have a good time together,” Palmer says.

For family caregivers, services include education and support groups, including for adult children who are caring for parents with memory loss.

“Education about their loved one’s condition can help them understand what is happening and to know how to plan for the future,” Palmer explains. “Both groups provide education but also an opportunity to be with others who truly understand. People who attend say that they no longer feel so alone.”

Both Palmer and Varya talk about the importance of family caregivers having time for themselves to take care of chores, run errands, and spend time with friends or by themselves.

“They can just be home alone, which they need,” Palmer says. “They really need that window of time to take care of themselves.”

Varya describes it as being able to do “deep breathing.”

“I just need that down time mentally,” she says.

Varya praises the center for providing Bud with socialization, mental stimulation and exercise in a loving and safe environment.

“They’re so responsive to his moods and to his needs,” she says.