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Finding bridges

The Christian Village's Memory Care Unit

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[July 10, 2008]  Walking up to the nurses station at the Memory Care Unit in The Christian Village, one could not be faulted for asking for a room for the night. The large, modern rooms, the expansive, sunlit lobby and dining facilities all make one question if they are in a health care setting or a fine hotel.

As many as 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life.

-- Alzheimer's Association

HardwareThe difference is the 24 patrons of this establishment; they all are suffering from an insidious disease that slowly destroys the brain cells of a human being. It is known as Alzheimer's.

Lisa Johnson, director of nursing at The Christian Village, and Pam Mulford, Memory Care Unit director, led the tour through the area completely remodeled eight years ago.

The first thing an observer notices is that outside each room are glass shelving units hung on the walls. In these cases are photographs, family treasures, favorite mementos or jewelry, and anything else that the families think might help trigger a momentary recognition from their loved one.

It is these outside stimuli that caregivers use as one of many tools to find those bridges between their patients and this world that in many cases they have left behind. Left behind, as the disease tampers with and destroys those moments, those memories and those remembrances that make us all recall who we are and who we have been.

Johnson and Mulford stopped their tour at the outside patio, where residents help plant flowers and tend the garden. Johnson smiled as she noted that from time to time they have a beach party out on the patio. One patient's family recently helped pull out a row of bushes and planted flowers in the area.

It is this constant involvement and relationship with the families that both Johnson and Mulford emphasized as important. At the time of a person's admittance, the family is required to fill out a detailed history of the patient. It's a complete background of their life, including where they grew up, favorite shows and hobbies, occupation, and names of family members. That information and much more are included in a patient's memory album. Thus the staff gets to know the past of a patient and can use this knowledge to attempt another bridge with today.


Johnson explained, "We don't just accept a patient. We take in the entire family."

Those first days can be hard on the family. Johnson said that it is common for the patient to adjust quicker to the new surroundings than it is for their caretakers. Every family and family member takes the decision to give the care of their loved one over to professionals differently. Emotions can run the gamut from sadness, to guilt, anxiety and every other feeling that one can think of. Families can gather solace in the fact they know they are giving their family member to the most qualified of professionals, but it can still be hard on them to leave a loved one in another's care.

As the walk continued, there was a stack of small boxes with names on them. Mulford explained that they were the "interest boxes." Depending on the individual, there can be any number of things in each box. Whether a beautician, an artist or a housewife, all would have wares of their trade within the box. These items are used to stimulate memories, to build another bridge with today that can be so hard to find with an Alzheimer's patient.


Walking on, Mulford explained how everyday activities are promoted to help patients. Those who can help make foods make anything from salads to chili. Smiling, Mulford stated, "Chili dogs and root beer floats are a real favorite around here."

The end of the wing opens into a large room that houses a giant-screen television. The television doesn't show the latest cable movies, but rather tapes of "The Lawrence Welk Show" and Red Skelton -- shows that might trigger a brief moment in remembering days gone past that have been clouded over or lost.

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Animals can help with therapy in a hospital setting. As we walked along, a chocolate cocker spaniel aptly named Hershey came up. Hershey is the wing's official dog. After a quick scratch he continued on his day's work to find the person, if just for a moment, he might build a special bridge with.

Johnson and Mulford smilingly recalled the day Johnson brought a horse to the wing. When asked if the horse actually came into the building, Johnson nodded yes. Mulford's only suggestion at the time was to have someone follow the horse with a shovel just in case. Johnson said that the horse caused quite a stir with patients that day. However, it was uncertain if the horse was able to build a bridge with patients, or if he did, how many. That is always a question.


The staff is determined to find those moments when something gets triggered in a person that gives them those treasured glimpses of who their patients were, and who they really are behind the veil of the disease.

"Sometimes two patients will carry on a conversation with each other but they are totally on different topics," Johnson said. But they are here at that time, and another small bit of evidence that these individuals still have moments of lucidity makes the staff work harder to find still another bridge to reach them.

Triggers to a bridge can be so simple. Johnson mentioned that one patient who worked for a major retailer comes back just a little bit when they see the company's catalog.

Understanding the patients is important to everyone at the center. The Christian Village staff believes that it is important for everyone working there to understand the disease and be able to cope with the problems the disease can create. From dietary help to janitorial, all receive training in Alzheimer's.

Johnson is a 20-year hospice nurse who has been with The Christian Village for six years. Mulford is a 32-year-on-the-job nurse who, according to Johnson, "is one of most knowledgeable persons in her field."


Mulford's passion is for helping Alzheimer's patients and their families. "She will always give advice or help someone to find resources. They don't have to be the family of a patient here," Johnson said.

Mulford offers a group support session every third Thursday for families of those afflicted with the disease. The group is open to everyone, not just families who have their loved ones in the center's wing.

Johnson praised the staff and volunteers, saying that it takes special people to be able to handle the constant demands that working in the wing requires. "It is a gift," Johnson said with great respect.

A gift that builds small bridges one moment at a time.

For more information on the Alzheimer's support group or The Christian Village Memory Care Unit, individuals can contact Pam Mulford at 732-2189.



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