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Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

Slide background

Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

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Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.

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Learn from the first-hand experiences of others.


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Alzheimer’s and dementia are devastating diseases, stealing memories and personalities, leaving only a hint of the person the victim had been. For those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and their families, this diagnosis is the beginning of a long and emotionally difficult journey. I worked as a consultant in the field of geriatric medicine as well as physical medicine and rehabilitation for 18 years. During that time, I toured, worked with, and evaluated many Alzheimer’s and dementia programs across the country, and I will share with you what to consider when selecting this type of program for a loved one.

What to Look For

When your loved one’s disease has progressed to the level that residential care is required, be sure to tour the facilities in your area. Select a unit with:

Staff Trained in Alzheimer’s/Dementia Care: This is critical to a program. Many skilled nursing and residential care programs claim expertise in this area, but few staff members have actual training. Ask if the staff members have any certifications, continuing education credits, or other training that demonstrates they understand the unique needs of this patient population.

Unit Secured but Has Open Areas: A good dementia care unit will be locked and secured to keep residents from wandering away, but within the unit, the residents should have reasonable access to a lounge area, crafting stations, and other communal rooms.

Unit Provides Access to Outdoor Areas: A great unit will have a secured outdoor garden or patio area where residents can walk freely and enjoy their world.

Dining Room Used by the Residents: Even as their memories are failing, people with Alzheimer’s continue to enjoy social interaction, and dining with others is a key component to assuring that the residents remain as connected as possible to the world around them.

Environment Encourages Exploration and Touch: Although memories fade with dementia, the senses are still active. A good unit will provide safe ways for the residents to connect with their environment through the senses, especially touch. These units will have wall art made of colorful threads or yarns that is meant to be touched as well as viewed. Soft throws will be placed on the couches and colorful accent pieces used as part of the décor.

Program Provides Family Education: Staff who truly know and understand the processes of Alzheimer’s and dementia will work with the families to educate them on these diseases and how best to support their loved ones in the unit. For example, residents might not recognize photos of their own children, grandchildren, or even current ones of themselves but will recognize photos of their parents, siblings, and themselves in their teens and 20s. These photos and similar items will help residents feel safe and comfortable while residing in the unit, and a good program will help families understand these needs.

Price is, of course, a factor in selecting a program, but a good basic unit should be able to provide at least this basic level of experience and care.

If Only We Knew

Selecting an appropriate Alzheimer’s unit can be challenging, and I’ve heard of many positive and negative experiences. The most common complaints I hear are:

Residents are restrained most of the time. Some families are shocked to find that their loved one is restrained to the bed or wheelchair most of the day. The reason for this is either understaffing of the facility or simply staff convenience. However, this level of restraint is unhealthy for the residents and should not be tolerated.

Meals are bland and unpleasant. Many families find that the food served at the facilities is nearly inedible but are told that it’s nutritious and that the residents don’t know what they’re eating anyway, so it doesn’t matter. This simply isn’t true. The senses are still present in a person with dementia, with smell and taste being ways for the resident to still connect with the environment. Meals should be healthy and tasty, allowing the Alzheimer’s patient the ability to continue to enjoy this aspect of life even as others fade.

The staff treats my loved one as a problem, not a person. It can be easy to slip into the role of scolding adult to a child when working with people suffering from dementia, but this behavior is unacceptable. A well-trained staff will see the residents as people first and foremost, treating them with kindness and respect.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are insidious diseases that have a devastating effect on all who are touched by them. Find a program that helps you understand your loved one's needs, treats residents with respect, and keeps them safe and engaged with the world around them as long as possible.

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