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OPTIMA Award: My trip to relearn memory care

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After two planes, two subway lines, a train and a taxi, I’d finally arrived at The Atrium at Drum Hill, a Benchmark Senior Living memory care community in upstate Massachusetts. My two-day visit was part of Long-Term Living’s coverage of the 2014 OPTIMA Award winner, where I would immerse myself in a special program that used all-day activities to improve the lives of those with dementia.

Something seemed different from the moment I walked in the door.

No one was slumped in front of the television watching "Wheel of Fortune." Instead, several residents were immersed in a video about the Hawaiian Islands, this week's resident-chosen learning topic.

One of the first people to greet me was Bob, who I first thought was a volunteer. He shook my hand, politely called me “ma’am,” and welcomed me to his home.

Soon, freshly laundered table linens arrived in a basket, so Virginia and Tony, both residents, got busy folding them for the day’s meals. The rolled hand towels are warmed and used at meal times as a soothing sensory experience, explained Margaret Kargbo, one Drum Hill’s care associates. The gently repetitive task of folding and rolling the linens helps residents concentrate and maintain dexterity in their fingers, but it also helps them stay connected by contributing to a community purpose.

A small group of residents gathered around a table to listen to a care associate talking about pets. A box on the table contained pictures, a dog collar, toy stuffed animals and other pet-related items used as discussion cues. The residents considered questions such as “What is the most unusual pet you can think of?” and “Would a lion make a good house pet?” Like many of the program’s activities, this one exercised a brain process that people with dementia tend to lose early—the ability to sort things into categories.

Later, Bob graciously allowed me to see his room. Small computer components and electronic gadgets were strewn across his desk. Next to the window stood a black lacquered chair emblazoned with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology university logo. Bob told me he wasn't sure if he went to school there, but said his father worked there.

Technology helps Drum Hill's residents live in the now instead of lingering in the past. If a resident expresses interest in tigers during a program about animals, an associate can lead him or her to the computer stations in the main room and locate an online video showing a live tiger roaming the grasslands in Africa. Associates even helped one resident learn how to Skype with her sister, who lives in an assisted living community in Canada.

At lunch time, I asked to eat with the residents. Bob immediately volunteered to be my escort, and two other residents joined our family-style table. Servers brought two trays containing the meal examples—lasagna, zucchini and mozzarella sticks on one tray; corned beef, potatoes and carrots on the other—and asked each resident to choose.

We spent an hour in conversation as my tablemates told me a bit about themselves, prognosticated about the Red Sox and asked about where I live. Occasionally a tiny reminder of their memory impairments would surface—one man told the same joke three times before dessert—almost like a conversational loop resetting itself.


Pamela Tabar


Pamela Tabar



Pamela Tabar is editor-in-chief of I Advance Senior Care. She has worked as a writer...