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Innovative Cultural Enrichment For Early/Mid Stage Dementia At Seattle Day Program: Elderwise

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Does spiritual essence stay the same despite physical or cognitive changes? That’s a deep question, isn’t it? We may wonder things like this when faced with serious physical decline or a loved one’s advanced dementia. How can we reach someone we once knew? Sandy Sabersky, founder of Elderwise, Seattle’s innovative day program for people living with early to mid-stage dementia, based her program on certainty that essence does stay the same. Programs are geared to access wholeness and essence through intuition, imagination, and inspiration. That core philosophy, called “Spirit Centered care,” drives the unique and nurturing day program and its exciting community partnerships.

Don paints amaryllis

Don paints amaryllis

“We meet people where they’re at and draw out what they can contribute,” explained Sara Shelton, Elderwise Board Chair. On a typical day participants in the day programs, never more than eight, are met in the lobby of Horizon House by two facilitators. Upstairs they begin four hours of cultural enrichment. “During the first hour, there is a selected topic of conversation and participants enjoy tea and peanut butter toast,” Shelton noted. “The next hour is wet-on-wet watercolor painting. And it’s very quiet. They’re just focused on experiencing art.” In fact, quiet and respect is so valued in the Elderwise program that Sara asked me not to observe the class the day I met her because the group had already had one visitor, a potential attendee, and two would be too much. So, she continued to summarize what I would’ve seen, “There is usually ½ an hour of movement then singing before a vegetarian lunch is served. Then, there’s ½ an hour of conversation—often including a discussion about a particular poem. Sometimes the group writes their own!”

To get a fuller sense of the atmosphere of this special four hour program watch the Elderwise video. In Jenny Gardon’s comments about her mom’s visit she’ll convey the environment and tell how both she and her mom are touched by it. “When I bring my mom up,” Gardon says, “I’m on the outside world’s schedule and time frame and I walk in the door and there’s not hurry here. And even though I’m kind of on a timeline sometimes to drop her off I want to pause and I want to stay…There’s a tone in the room that’s very peaceful and that word “gracious.” It’s really wonderful that I can bring her here and others can help her get started on things-help her get started on conversation, help her get started on painting, or clay, or laughter, and once she gets started on things she re-engages.”

“I like the value that’s placed on human life and no matter where you are in life you’re respected and valued and what you’re doing in spending time together is valued,” says Mary Lou Brown, spouse of an Elderwise participant, in the video above “. Each participant I notice is given wonderful respect.”

Frye Museum's innovative Here:Now collaboration with Elderwise

Elderwise Director Tamara Keefe discusses painting with participant at the Here:Now program, Frye Museum

Elderwise supports the whole person. As Sabersky explains, “Spirit Centered care” falls in a continuum of growing understanding on how to relate to people living with dementia. It’s “the next step” beyond the mainstream philosophy of “person-centered care” which honors personal preference and tries to support individual choices. In Elderwise philosophy, care exists within a co-created community. The four hour day program follows that model and, in a larger sense, Elderwise is creating it throughout the city by partnering with the Frye museum and Central Cinema and sponsoring art walks, talent shows, drumming circles, and urban farming.

The day program, in addition to enriching its participants, gives family rest and assurance of good care. “I love having him here,” says Barbara Martyn spouse of a program participant, “I know he’s secure, he’s happy, he likes what he’s doing.” Program involvement may also improve relationships within families or help family members renew patience.

“Elderwise is also for family members,” says Shelton,“the relationships that we develop with family members are, in some cases, just as strong as the one we develop with the participant who attends.” But the focus is on stimulation and enrichment of program participants. “You don’t have to compensate or try to cover anything up. It’s purely being yourself with this small group of people. You don’t have to worry about being wrong,” said Sara. “The emphasis is on being present and accepting of everyone in the group.”

If you’d like to explore the Elderwise day program contact: info@nullelderwise.org or call (206) 774-6606. Elderwise-sponsored community programs happen at least once a month so also consider attending one of those engaging EW round orangegroups. Upcoming events are listed on the Elderwise website at http://www.elderwise.org.

Tiles of art seen beneath the blog header and at left are details from paintings by Bob Boundy, Midge Brenner and Mary Lou Gillis of Elderwise. Boundy, Brenner, and Gillis are three Elderwise artists featured in a series of Artist gift cards. Contact info@elderwise for more information on how to purchase cards that support Elderwise programs.

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