by Therese Horvat
OLATHE — It’s a fact: Every 70 seconds someone develops Alzheimer’s disease.
The disease affects an estimated five million Americans. Projections are, as baby boomers continue to age, that in 20 years those numbers will increase by more than 50 percent and double again by 2050.
In the face of these startling statistics, Villa St. Francis in Olathe has created a special unit dedicated to providing compassionate, quality care for persons with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The Villa is the only Catholic skilled nursing facility sponsored by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Esther White, a parishioner of Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park, cared for her husband Bob, who had Alzheimer’s, in their home for a number of years. When she had a heart attack, Esther’s doctor talked with her about the toll caring for Bob was taking on her own health. She subsequently placed Bob in the Dementia Care Unit of Villa St. Francis.
Esther said that she knew from the outset through his death, that Bob was in good hands.
“You can’t beat the kindness that Catholic care gives you,” Esther said. “These people (the staff) just have a calling; they know why they are there.”
On a routine day, residents of the Villa’s Dementia Care Unit gather for a devotional with prayer, Scripture and hymns. Those Catholic residents of the unit who are not given to wandering due to their memory loss can attend daily Mass in the chapel if escorted by staff or volunteers.
Amy Flores, LPN, coordinator of the unit, said that staff incorporates activities throughout the day to keep residents’ minds and bodies engaged. They use “mind joggers” such as nursery rhymes residents had told their children. A group of men who share the common experience of past military duty gather for coffee and conversation daily. Esther routinely brought Bob’s dog, Lady, to the Villa to visit him, much to the delight of other residents. Therapy dogs continue to make the rounds.
Flores said that it is helpful to do things with residents that they would normally do everyday, even though staff may need to change how things get accomplished. Residents bake bread, do arts and crafts, fold and sort clothes, and exercise — all with supervision by unruffled and respectful staff who know each resident’s habits and routines.
Jean Hopkins, a resident of the Villa Dementia Care Unit, once worked as a nurse. In some respects, “she is still nursing today,” said Jim Hopkins, her nephew who lives near Wichita. He has watched Jean be attentive to other residents — listening to them when they need support and giving them a hand when they can’t reach a cookie.
One day, Jean glances through a book with color photographs and remarks about the beautiful scenes; another day, she is engrossed and works side by side and talks with a resident during a crafts project. Each day, her eyes sparkle and she radiates a beautiful smile, even though Alzheimer’s has impaired her ability to remember and process thoughts as she once did.
Father Craig Maxim, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Shawnee, was instrumental in helping Jean’s family connect with Villa St. Francis. His mother and Jean had been best friends in Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Mo., where both families had lived.
Father Maxim said, “Jean was like a family member.”
Through a referral from the nursing director of the facility where his own mother resides, Father Maxim learned about the Villa’s Dementia Care Unit as an option to provide the type of care Jean needs.
“As people — many of whom have built our parish communities — arrive at the stages of their lives where they need someone to help them,” Father Maxim said, “I’m pleased that the archdiocese has a facility like Villa St. Francis.”
Flores said staff strives to keep communication open with family members and to involve them as much as possible in residents’ lives. Family members help the Villa staff understand what a resident’s normal routine had been: the time of day they awakened, whether they showered or bathed, food preferences and other habits — all key to caring for them. Social services staff provides an important link with families and with other helpful resources. Two psychiatrists and a counselor help support and address the behavioral issues that sometimes occur when dementia affects the brain function.
“With Alzheimer’s, the inner workings of the brain are not connecting like they used to,” Flores explained, “so personalities may change or intensify. Whatever emotions these residents express are true emotions. When they are scared, angry or happy to see you, you know it is real.
“While family members may struggle with their loved ones not being the persons they once were,” Flores added, “we meet the residents at this stage, and this is who they are to us.”
“Once you understand them, each day together is a blessing,” she concluded.