By Anna Zuckerman-Vdovenko
Memory loss seems to be on the rise and can affect our loved ones. They may experience difficulty recalling recent events and memories from their past. In this condition, it may be difficult for them to figure out where they are, the time of the day, and how to recognize their close friends and family members. For those of us dealing with a loved one who experiences memory loss, we want to maintain a loving relationship particularly during this holiday season.
Connecticut has empowering resources for families seeking help for loved ones needing memory care, from organizations that give advice on how to handle these changes while staying at home to facilities where those with more severe memory loss can live with dignity and moments of joy. Award-winning memory care live-in communities within Connecticut abound with compassionate caregivers and carefully conceived programs of activities that build community.
What is Memory Loss?
In the past, doctors often referred to memory loss as “senile dementia.” Now there is additional terminology for referring to this illness that can be helpful. Medical doctors often speak of memory loss and dementia as a neuro-degenerative disease. The Alzheimer’s disease term has come to represent all kinds of memory loss even though there are a variety that are not Alzheimer’s under that umbrella. Memory care specialist Vicki de Klerk and Naomi Feil of the world-renowned Validation Training Institute avoid using the word dementia; they believe that the term “disorientation” best describes how those with memory loss see the world around them.
Advocates and Educators
Liz Cornish advocates for people with memory loss and helps families and caregivers. She had been working for 30 years in the field of physical therapy for seniors with memory loss before forming her company, New Season in Life, LLC. She advises families who are searching for long-term care to visit three facilities that are in close proximity to the family members who want to be able to see their loved one frequently.
According to Cornish, most places offer similar amenities, but the feel and aesthetic to each place is different; this may be a decisive factor. Cornish’s checklist helps decide whether a memory care facility is the right place for a loved one. It includes items such as level of patient care, supervision and companionship, number of staff, quality of food, medical services provided, ease of navigation, cleanliness, security, and more. Individual needs for people under care should not be forgotten. This is where Cornish acts as their advocate in finding the right facility where individuals may be most content and secure.
A Lifelong Tribute
Lisa Marshall, a vibrant woman and a resident of Andover, Conn., was happily married to Peter since 2009. Around 2017, she started noticing that Peter was becoming disoriented and forgetful. That led to the realization that he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s in his 50s. As the disease progressed, Peter remained affectionate and loving but had no recollection they were husband and wife. That is why he proposed to her again, and so a lovely ceremony with friends and family was arranged. Lisa relates that this second ceremony felt even more emotional than the first one. There were challenging moments for Lisa and Peter throughout the illness, which took Peter from her in late December of 2021.
Lisa has bravely decided to share her experience in her new “Oh Hello Alzheimer’s!” book. She shares important tips and advice for caregivers, addressing issues that most publications skirt around, such as topics of loss, grief and taboo subjects. She also has a popular blog with thousands of followers and a fundraising for a cure team for which can be accessed at her website (linker.we/ohhelloalzheimers).
A Doctor’s Viewpoint
Dr. Harry Morgan is a well-known geriatric psychiatrist based in Glastonbury, Conn., and a specialist in neuro-degenerative diseases. He believes in a proactive attitude not restricted to medicines alone. According to Dr. Morgan, as the population is growing older, dementia is also on the rise. Seventy percent of dementia is attributed to Alzheimer’s. Other types of dementia may result from microscopic strokes, accumulation of abnormal proteins such as the chemical imbalances found in Lewy Body Syndrome, and repeated severe concussions. All these conditions can be approached with various therapeutic measures, but still, as of yet, there is no cure.
Occasionally, mimics of dementia occur caused by things such as urinary tract infections, brain hematomas or brain tumors. Prior to specialized treatment, these conditions should be ruled out.
What We Need to Know
Dr. Morgan explained that the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is caused by deposits in the brain of amyloid plaque and toxic tau proteins that destroy neurons. This leads to progressive memory loss, changes in behavior, cognitive abilities and motor skills. With the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, patients demonstrate the reversal of human development seen in childhood. Eventually, swallowing, raising the head, walking, speaking and toilet skills can be reduced in the late stages of the illness.
Although we don’t know the cause of the illness, we do know that a few important factors may combat the progression of dementia. These are daily physical exercise and a good night’s sleep that improves brain blood and fluid circulations. Socializing, participating in community activities, and exposure to new and novel activities are effective strategies to keep our brains healthy for as long as possible.
A Fresh Outlook
It is not a simple matter to figure out how to communicate with a disoriented person with memory loss. Vicki de Klerk-Rubin is a geriatric specialist and trained nurse. Like her world-renowned mother, Naomi Feil, de Klerk-Rubin has trained people all over the world in the Validation Method, a highly effective approach to relating meaningfully to those with memory loss. Validation is a way of communicating and being with disoriented elderly people. It is a practical approach that helps reduce stress, enhance dignity and increase happiness. Validation is built on an empathetic attitude and a holistic view of individuals. Feil’s methods and information about Validation Method resources worldwide can be accessed through vfvalidation.org.
Living with and caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is challenging to say the least. As with other diseases, we often come to face dementia inexperienced and unprepared. Although we have a compassionate and caring society, it is virtually impossible to cope with multiple aspects of dementia alone. Fortunately, we don’t have to feel isolated because there are resources available.
Esther Pearl is the Northern Central CT regional director for the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Her husband, Mark, developed younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The association assists those who live with the disease and those who care for them to move forward with resources to live their best life possible and also supports research. The organization also has an early-stage social engagement program. Additionally, they conduct national fundraising Walks to End Alzheimer’s. People living with Alzheimer’s disease, those who care for them and the community of people who care participate in these walks. Each person carries a flower with a color indicative of their connection to Alzheimer’s disease. When Esther’s husband Mark took part in the walk and saw the other participants carrying the same kind of flower he was holding, he had a profound and transformative realization that he was not alone.
The usual course of dementia is that of a gradual decline, but emergencies do happen. Heather Hitchcock is the community education manager at Bristol Behavioral Health for Bristol Hospital. This is a short-term facility for individuals with dementia. Hitchcock explained that processing questions and forming sentences can take much longer for people with memory loss. Caregivers and family members ought to be very patient and not resort to saying things like: “You just repeated yourself,” or “Why can’t you remember simple things?” Keeping someone emotionally happy and feeling safe is the most loving gift one can aim for.
According to Hitchcock, patients sometimes spiral into a crisis and need to be brought in for stabilization. She emphasizes the effect of the environment on the course of dementia because patients can only be as stable as the environment allows. Hitchcock counsels that, “every behavior is an attempt at communication.” Each Alzheimer’s case is unique. Sometimes, despite all the positive effects of a supportive environment, medication is the best answer in achieving effective goals of management. Short-term care facilities with easy access like Bristol Hospital are important institutions with immediate availability.
Where to Seek Live-in Care
There are a greater number of specialized facilities in the state of Connecticut, and where to go largely depends on location. Here are a few options, among many.
Seabury (seaburylife.org) is a notable memory care community in Bloomfield, Conn. The traditional-style campus is well-thought out with the interior looking like a fine hotel. Marketing Director Marc Zirolli, together with Ashley Richard, the admissions director, could not have been more enthusiastic about the Seabury community. Seabury began in 1876 as a faith-based mission for aging pastors and their church members with various locations near Hartford. Now consolidated within Bloomfield, it is welcoming to people of all faiths and backgrounds with fun activities to celebrate each season. Seabury ensures that no one has to leave the facility due to financial hardship. This rare opportunity is based on many charitable strategies they have lined up for patients. Seabury is now an educational hub for the University of Connecticut, providing college classes that give the joy of learning and mental stimulation to those over 65.
McLean Lifeplan Community
McLean (mcleancare.org, mcleaninspiredliving.org) offers a continuing care retirement community that stands out for excellence and attracts over 60 volunteers who spend time with those needing extra company. Jameson Lukasiewicz, vice president of sales and marketing, and Managing Director Ann Pavano are proud to represent this welcoming, compassionate community in a pretty forest glade. People who have memory loss can live within the assisted living component at McLean. For those having more extreme levels of impairment, there is a region that allows them to be given the security they need to prevent unheeded wandering. McLean was awarded a purple flag, which is rare for an assisted living community as it is so hard to achieve. The award is garnered from a combination of elements that indicate excellence in staff training, educational outreach to the community and quality of care.
Anthology: A Modern Assisted Living Community
Anthology (anthologyseniorliving.com) has two large assisted living facilities making a sizable footprint in the Farmington Valley. The modern new buildings are full of light, featuring everything from gardens to cinema spaces. The locations in Farmington and Simsbury are in close proximity to stores, theaters and hiking trails. People at all stages of needing care are welcome at Anthology, a name born from the notion that each person has their own story and is unique. Anthology’s memory care unit, called The Enclave, is popular and almost full. Dementia has upticked by 40%, according to Brenda Gurung, an award-winning senior living leader at Anthology, and Stephanie Deschaine, area director of sales and marketing. The community has lots of activities and entertainment with guest artists to keep the patients cheerful.
The Heights at Avery Heights
The Heights is the senior living community for the Avery Heights continuum of care retirement community. Nestled between West Hartford and Newington, it has a 5-star reputation in the community for everything from caregivers to cleanliness. The community has all levels of care, from adult independent living in cottages and apartments to assisted living and memory care. Seniors in their independent and assisted living communities have confidence that if more significant elements of care are ever needed, The Heights at Avery Heights can handle it. For example, if a resident begins to experience advanced stages of dementia, they can join the memory care group. Avery Heights has little turnover; consequently, long-term, meaningful relationships get forged between caregivers and residents.
Avery Heights provides 43 idyllic acres to stroll through. It is still right in the heart of where the action is to enjoy restaurants, shopping, scenic parks, cultural activities and tourist attractions within the region of Connecticut’s capitol city. With over 60 years of nonprofit status, Avery Heights has been fully committed to giving residents the highest level of independence possible. When more memory care is needed, experts in the field, such as 24-hour nursing support and dementia-trained personal care attendants, are involved in deeply enriching the lives of the residents with activities that stimulate the mind and comfort the heart.
Autumn Lake Healthcare (autumnlakenewbritain.com) is a comfortable, cheerful community with memory care that accepts Medicare, Medicaid, most insurances and private payments. The facilities are spread out across Connecticut with sites in New Britain, Cromwell, Waterbury and Norwalk. Autumn Lake has bright, comfortable rooms allowing residents to enjoy their personal space. Outdoor courtyards and spacious lounges throughout the center offer a vibrant social scene, according to Teresa Jones, director of business development and marketing.
Nestled within the hills of Avon and another location in Farmington, Arden Courts (arden-courts.org) is exclusively a memory care facility. Hollis Hartman, a marketing specialist in senior living, said that Arden Courts is a one-story, secure building with hallways—called neighborhoods—that accommodate 14 people. Each neighborhood has a kitchen, living room and space for residents to walk about the community barrier-free. It’s entirely secure with 24-hour nursing care and lovely gardens out in the back. Residents have programming seven days a week by a dedicated activities manager. These cover physical, spiritual, intellectual and social engagement.
All the Connecticut memory care communities have entertainment and activities throughout the day for those who are able to enjoy singing, watching movies, exercise and games. Staying active is the key for a good quality of life for those with impaired memory. Elderly people with memory loss, even at the advanced stage of disease, can sing, remembering lines and tunes to songs. It appears that corresponding areas of the brain for music retain functionality for a very long period of time.
Most who have encountered loved ones with dementia often observe that the soul’s deepest essence never changes in their beloved; how those afflicted with this illness express themselves does change, and what they can perceive becomes limited. There is no easy way to put a positive spin on memory loss, especially when it becomes severe. Patti Reagan, in her candid book about her father’s decline, called Alzheimer’s “the long goodbye.” What saves caregivers emotionally is to keep in mind the unique sanctity and dignity of each person with Alzheimer’s or a related disease. This is the key that unlocks the door to a fount of endless compassion. Within ourselves, we can find the eternal spring of love and hope that we must harvest, a necessity required to give the best memory care possible.
Anna Zuckerman-Vdovenko is an internationally published photographer and writer running azvphotomedia.com.