Gretchen Wagner began work in elder care years ago when many caregivers dealt with dementia by drugging people and sometimes restraining the more physically agitated.
Those practices made her frown, then and now.
What else could be done?
Quite a lot, Wagner thought.
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Professionals and regulators have pushed hard in the past 20 years to give people more memory care, or “memory support,” as Wagner prefers to call it. Many assisted living facilities now employ it. The idea is to create teams of specialists who use music, art, activities and more to inspire and engage dementia sufferers.
Alzheimer’s, the dominant cause of dementia, afflicts 5.4 million nationally, and 51,000 Kansans, said Breana Jones, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Wichita.
Alzheimer’s, the dominant cause of dementia, afflicts 51,000 Kansans.
Helping those 51,000 Kansas sufferers is a burden to their estimated 150,000 unpaid caregivers, mostly family members, Jones said. Family usually cares for the victims unpaid because professional care is costly, Jones said.
This is a huge drag on the economy and on businesses, who see employees take time off to address an emergency involving an elder loved one.
“I’ve often struggled over why businesses are not more involved in this need,” said Dr. Stephen Benson, a Wichita clinical psychologist who works with memory support.
“People taking time off from work costs hundreds of billions in lost time,” he said, “and directly impacts their workers and their bottom line.”
The strain on caregivers can last years. The average time between diagnosis and death: eight to 10 years, Jones said.
But even with burdens, it’s possible to help sufferers, Benson, Jones and Wagner said.
Wagner is director of assisted living and memory support at Larksfield Place in Wichita. She grew up around her grandparents and their friends, and learned from those friendships that elders deserve the good moments of life.
“This work is my passion,” she said.
Elder care nationally changed for the better in recent years with more emphasis put into memory support. A lot of sufferers still get medicated, Benson said.
“It’s tragic,” he said.
Sometimes he said he suspects those medications are used on the elders “to alleviate staff anxiety.”
“But everything has shifted, and thank God, some agencies like the Center for Medicare Services is cracking down more on practices like that,” Benson said.
Elder care places like Larksfield are showing that elders and their loved ones can live more enjoyably even with affliction, said Benson, who is chairman of the board at Larksfield.
“People who face challenges with memory are every bit as valuable to society as people who face any other challenge,” Wagner said. “The responsibility lies with us ... to keep a focus on what is still there, rather than to focus on the deficit.”
It’s about creating little moments of joy. It is in the little things. And you have to be creative.
Gretchen Wagner, Larksfield Place
“It’s about creating little moments of joy,” she said. “It is in the little things. And you have to be creative.”
Focusing on joys rather than deficits can mean that when you show your grandmother the family group portrait, and she gets some of the names wrong, don’t correct her, Wagner said.
“Just go with it,” she said. “So what if she got some names wrong?”
It makes her happy to see the photo, Wagner said, but it raises anxiety in the victim, and a feeling of failure, to be told she got names wrong.
Another example: Inspiring an afflicted elder person to live life more happily doesn’t always mean asking them to do things they liked to do before.
Wagner will never forget the elderly man she worked with a few years ago. He had been a school administrator and was never interested in doing anything athletic. But one day, in group activities, she encouraged the man to pick up a basketball — and watched as he spent years after that, happily shooting baskets.
What Wagner’s teams of caregivers do at Larksfield’s Memory Support Center is deploy an array of activities to inspire joy and social interaction. The goal is to engage memory, but they do it while having fun. They employ music, art, physical exercise, parties, dog visits, ice cream socials, movies, bead making, current events discussions, Bible studies and games to get people active, talking and engaged about life.
Music is a huge gift to dementia sufferers, Jones said. The part of the memory that engages with music is the last to succumb to dementia.
Music is not just music — it takes people back to when they were happy.
Breana Jones, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Wichita
“We like to get with people about their earliest memories of music,” Jones said. “We try to get people personal iPod lists that family can help us come up with, songs they heard starting in their teens and 20s, music that really resonates with them. There was this song — “We Built This City” by Jefferson Starship — that I heard when my parents took me to Joyland starting when I was eight. Anytime I hear that song ... it takes me back to that. So music is not just music — it takes people back to when they were happy.”
On a recent afternoon, Wagner listened for a few minutes as Meg Beck, a music therapist at Larksfield, played ukulele and sang “Polly Wolly Doodle All Day.”
The half-dozen Larksfield residents with Beck failed to harmonize, but several sang along and others smiled in appreciation of Beck’s lead vocals.
A few days before this, Wagner said, she’d walked in on Beck leading a room full of elders in a performance, all tapping hand chimes to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
“They were real hand chimes and not toy hand chimes,” Wagner said. “And it sounded beautiful.”
Resources for Alzheimer’s disease
▪ The Alzheimer’s Association offers a website with resources and information — http://alz.org/care/overview.asp
▪ Its hotline — 800-272-3900 — is answered 24 hours a day, including weekends to answer questions and offer support.
▪ The local Alzheimer’s chapter may be reached at 316-267-7333 and has a list of resources, events and support groups.