ALAMEDA -- A pioneering program called "I'm Still Here," aimed at improving the quality of life for people with Alzheimer's or memory loss, is being offered at Alameda-based Elder Care Alliance's five Bay Area retirement communities.
"This is a wonderful program," said Trish Lethin, whose 95-year-old mother has lived at the AlmaVia facility in San Francisco for nine years. "People have a purpose for living, they're not just shuffling along. They are recognized as human beings, not just objects. I've seen a big change, not just in my mother, but a lot of the residents."
"I'm Still Here" promotes socialization and engages people with memory loss in meaningful activities that give them a sense of purpose -- whether it's a field trip to deliver blankets to the SPCA, quilts for preemie babies at Kaiser or holding a bake sale to raise money for Alzheimer's research. There are less ambitious activities too that enhance daily life -- such as having residents serve as "greeters" at meal times and offering food choices so it feels less institutional and more like a restaurant.
"This program is a total culture change and shift," said Rachel Main, director of life enrichment and memory care for Elder Care Alliance (ECA). "The premise is that everyone is 'still here' and can live a high-quality life from early onset to the end of the disease. The approach enables people with dementia to remain creative throughout their lives."
ECA is the first elder care facility on the West Coast to adopt the "I'm Still Here" approach, which was developed by Dr. John Zeisel of The Hearthstone Institute in Massachusetts.
"One of the most significant challenges for persons living with cognitive impairment is the stigma," said Sharon Johnson, vice president of The Hearthstone Institute. "The 'I'm Still Here' approach provides us with a powerful tool for overcoming this stigma because it generates a belief that every person has an innate capability to learn and succeed, despite the severity of their memory loss."
Sister Toni-Lynn Gallagher is a frequent visitor to her fellow Sister of Mercy who lives at ECA's Mercy Retirement and Care Center in Oakland. She also has witnessed good results from the "I'm Still Here" program.
"I go over there a lot and I like what I see," Sister Gallagher said. "There's a lot of love, a lot of care and a lot of life enhancement going on. Thirty years ago, a lot of people would have been in lockup institutions. At Mercy, we value the sacredness of life from beginning to end -- the end of life is just as sacred as the beginning."
She said it's important for people with memory loss to feel a connection -- and that is what the "I'm Still Here" program is doing.
"If someone has spent their entire life enjoying music, then staff members find a way to enhance and capitalize on that," Sister Gallagher said. "Yesterday, there was a Zumba class and everyone was doing something, even if it was just watching. That's the gift of this program."
Main said the goal of "I'm Still Here" is not only to engage residents in life enrichment activities, but also to create a culture of community where everyone -- residents, families and caregivers alike -- are involved.
She said not only residents but the staff has been energized by the "I'm Still Here" approach. An activity called "Class with Minnie" took off after a staff member began teaching a Spanish class after breakfast each day.
"She got so excited -- it really took off," Main said. "She even brought beautiful embroidered dresses to show to the residents and taught them how to make guacamole using a pestle."
In another case, the staff found a way to engage a woman with advanced dementia, who had previously been nonverbal, by making her a memory book of things about her life.
"It was amazing how she woke up and became completely entrenched in the book for two or three hours -- and she kept saying 'Thank you,'" Main said. "If we can learn the key to engagement, it provides meaning and purpose."
In the "Four A's" of Alzheimer's -- anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy -- the last has often been overlooked, and people often retreat into themselves, Main said.
"Meaningful engagement and a sense of purpose are key," Main said. "It's important that people feel they are still involved and contributing to society."