In her role as vice president of memory care services at Artis Senior Living—one of the nation’s premier memory care assisted living communities—Mary Underwood gets to meet many different people while traveling to various parts of the country. When they find out she has dedicated her life to working with those afflicted with dementia, she notices an immediate change in their facial expression.
“Their first reaction is always one of sadness,” she says. “But even though this is a disease I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, that doesn’t mean it’s a disease that doesn’t have moments of incredible joy and incredible success and purpose. There is hope despite the diagnosis.”
While Underwood has had a distinguished, 31-year career in the field, it wasn’t until she joined Artis six years ago that she truly found an organization that shares her philosophy on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Of course it is important to keep those with the disease safe and protected, but at Artis Senior Living of Evesham, residents are also celebrated for their skills and talents, encouraged to remain engaged and treated as productive members of the community.
“When people do memory care, they focus on the disease and what the person can’t do,” she says. “The biggest difference with Artis is that it’s very much about the human being here. As strange as it sounds, we try to put the disease on the backburner. We have residents who have entered horse shows while living in our community. We have residents who have been nominated for local awards. It’s about what their abilities still are as a human being and not what their limitations are because of the disease.”
As Underwood points out, dementia is similar to cancer in that everyone seems to have some personal connection to the disease, whether it’s a grandparent, parent or neighbor. Her father had dementia, so she knows firsthand how isolating it can be for the person and the family. Early in the diagnosis, people tend to avoid get-togethers for fear of being judged or treated differently, and as it progresses those around them are not sure how to handle it.
At Artis Senior Living of Evesham, they are free to socialize again in a secure environment, participate in activities that are tailored to their interests and rediscover a zest for life.
“When we have people move into our community, so many times the family says, ‘It’s so great to see my mom talking to other people again and smiling,’” Underwood says. “Unfortunately with this disease, depression makes dementia worse and dementia makes depression worse. So it’s a vicious cycle when people are alone and not getting opportunities to engage and to socialize.”
Residents are often paired with Artis associates who have similar interests, such as baking. But the team goes beyond just keeping them busy with activities all day. Residents take part in purposeful programs and may help making refreshments for happy hour or even painting a room in the community.
Many also take part in the I CAN program, which stands for community assistance network. Artis teams up with local nonprofit organizations and gives residents an opportunity to do meaningful volunteer work in Evesham.
“What I love is it gives our residents a purpose, and we’re also helping support local organizations and we’re showing people outside of our community that even though we’re a building of people with dementia, those people still have abilities and can contribute,” Underwood says.
For those who are starting to suspect a loved one has dementia, Underwood explains there are several obvious signs to look for, such as repetitiveness, losing track of items and more reliance on written notes. But there are also more subtle clues, such as declining social events or mood shifts.
“It’s important to note that it’s not specific things we need to look for but differences in the person’s personality or things that are very common to them,” she says. “For example, my husband is a huge golfer. When he starts forgetting names of people, I’m not going to worry because that’s normal for him. When he starts forgetting his golf scores or courses he’s played, I’ll be concerned. It’s really important to notice when things that are common or familiar to them start to change.”
With the holidays approaching, Underwood also stresses that families of those with dementia should start formulating a plan. The large, traditional gatherings they are used to might be overwhelming for the person, and a late celebration may also be difficult, so it’s best to have those conversations now about what the person is able to handle.
Obviously, changes like that are to be expected with dementia, but Underwood is quick to remind anyone she talks to that there can still be many positive experiences for those with the disease, especially at a warm, welcoming place like Artis Senior Living of Evesham. She considers herself blessed to interact with these men and women on a daily basis.
“This is a population—not just people with dementia but seniors—that tends to become almost transparent,” she says. “So to be able to give somebody a bucket list adventure or to let them share a story that maybe they never shared before, just to value the abilities that they have and not the limitations, is incredibly rewarding.”
Artis Senior Living of Evesham
302 Lippincott Drive | Evesham
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