Seniors & Aging

Plan ahead to select dementia-care facility for loved ones

Memory-care activity leaders LeAnn Johnson and Julie Klos, center, help residents of Spring Creek in Bellingham make paper valentines on Jan. 23, 2016.
Memory-care activity leaders LeAnn Johnson and Julie Klos, center, help residents of Spring Creek in Bellingham make paper valentines on Jan. 23, 2016. For The Bellingham Herald

Bread is baking and a group of seniors are making valentines to replace the snowflakes on the windows. Birds are feasting in a backyard feeder and conversation turns to an upcoming dance.

It’s a typical day at Spring Creek by Bonaventure memory care community in Bellingham. The residential-care facility houses 19 dementia patients, next door to a building for retired seniors and another wing for those requiring assisted living.

“I tell people that as the needs of your loved ones change, we change with them,” says Todd Margeson, executive director.

People come to us, often not soon enough, but when the family has become very tired.

Todd Margeson, executive director, Spring Creek by Bonaventure

Dementia is a growing challenge for the nation’s aging population. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is an overall term for a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other cognitive skills, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases.

Regardless of the type of dementia, most of the afflicted lose their ability to remain independent and eventually require special residential care. One-in-three seniors will die with the illness.

Finding the right dementia facility is a job no family wants to face, but it makes all the difference in a loved one’s care. Symptoms can begin slowly, and caregiving at home becomes incrementally more difficult.

That’s why family members should plan ahead to visit several facilities. They should talk to staff, residents and other families, ask to see a facility’s latest inspection report, and visit at different times of the day, including meal time.

“People come to us, often not soon enough, but when the family has become very tired,” Margeson says. “As dementia develops, you go from managing by task to managing by the minute. No one looks after those caregivers.

“My concern is about the families as much as the loved one,” he says. “The risk becomes high for heart attack, stroke, exhaustion and even injury for the person in charge.”

LeeAnn Johnson, activity director at Spring Creek agrees.

“You still need to enjoy your life. If you keep giving and giving, then soon you both need care,” says Johnson, who cares for a family member after work each day. “You can lose your identity and who you are while focusing on someone else’s needs.”

In addition to relieving stress, good dementia communities offer care and companionship that the patient can’t get at home. Programs like physical therapy, activities that challenge memory, and social gatherings can help with symptoms and make the disease easier to live with.

So families choosing a care facility should ask whether they are encouraged to participate in care planning for their loved one, whether activities are designed to meet residents’ specific needs, and whether activities are held on weekends and evenings.

Living in a safe place, where wandering is prevented by locked doors and supervision, helps prevent accidents and the confusion of being outdoors alone. At Spring Creek, even the unlocked door to the enclosed and landscaped patio has an alarm to notify staff that someone has gone outside, but lets patients safely enjoy warm days and staff-hosted barbecues.

Along with safety features, families should check whether a facility allows easy freedom of movement, has rooms for residents that are clean and spacious, and has space set aside for family visits.

Families also should ask about dementia support groups. Spring Creek has one. So does Alzheimer Society of Washington, in Bellingham.

Being around other people is perhaps the biggest advantage to memory care communities. It can be both a motivator and a social stimulus.

“A patient may arrive not wanting to use their walker, but when they see everyone else doing it, it’s OK,” says Kim Morrow-Dickins, Spring Creek’s regional nurse. “Our residents decorate them with personal items and stuffed animals. It becomes a fun thing.”

In addition to cooking and crafts, patients enjoy theme days like “Elvis Day” and “The Kentucky Derby,” where everyone made hats and watched the famous horse race. Staff encourage residents to interact, and initiate conversations about old photographs and family.

At Spring Creek, a retired doctor with dementia happily went on his “rounds” each day and reported to the nurses. His unique behavior wasn’t discouraged because it made him feel valued.

Family resources

To learn more about how to choose a dementia care facility, go to the Alzheimer’s Association website, alz.org, and search for “residential care.”

For Bellingham-based help, including support groups, contact the Alzheimer Society of Washington at alzsociety.org or 360-671-3316.

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