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Young at Heart Respite caters to dementia patients, caregivers

Lori Sanders can’t remember the last time she had an evening out on the town. But thanks to a new respite program taking shape at the old county farm, that could soon change for the Johnson City resident.
Sanders serves as her father’s full-time caregiver. Suffering from dementia and other ailments, Sanders’ 83-year-old father is housebound for the most part.
“We can’t take him out to eat anymore,” said Sanders of her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2006. “He’ll get up and start walking around talking to people like he owns the restaurant and then he won’t sit back down.”
Sanders doesn’t believe her father needs or wants to be in a nursing home, and said the newly-opened Young at Heart Respite program could make all the difference in keeping him out of such a facility.
Officially open for business, the Young at Heart Respite is designed to provide care for dementia patients Monday and Friday evenings, from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. This service and schedule allows caregivers a rare evening out that is unrestricted by attending to the needs of their loved one’s disease.
Two grants and contributions of time and services from various churches, businesses and individuals have brought the Young at Heart facility to life. Volunteers and staff have been working on the building at the old county farm for the past year to get it ready.
“The county donated the building to us about a year ago. They gave us the facility to use for the next four years,” said Pam Gardner, director. “Now we are just waiting for people to call and make reservations.”
Inside the brightly repainted walls are 11 bedrooms, an exercise room, a music room, a game room, a small library and a specially designed multi-sensory space known as the “Snoezelen Room.”
“The Snoezelen Room is where clients who are agitated or angry can come inside and use their senses to calm down,” Gardner said. “They can snuggle with a stuffed animal, touch a textured cloth, or play with a bright colored toy. They have a rain machine, or they can watch the waterfall scene on the wall to get back into a good state of mind.”
Agitation is a common problem in dementia patients, especially in the evening hours when they are most likely to develop a condition known as Sundown Syndrome.
“Usually after four in the afternoon, when the shadows start coming in, they tend to get a little more confused, a little more anxious. They may even see things or people that aren’t really there,” Gardner explained. “They may be anxious about going home and about whether they are going to be left.
Staff members and volunteers are specially trained to cope with this boost in dementia symptoms at night. And the six-hour program is designed to keep clients’ minds stimulated, help them get some exercise, and enable them to socialize with others.
“The bedrooms will be used mostly to rest or nap, but we are going to encourage them to be up and moving,” Gardener said. “Our goal is to wear them out so that when they go home, they rest and give that caregiver a break.”
As far as Gardner knows, the Young at Heart Respite program is the only one of its kind in the region.
“There are day programs — we operate one in Johnson City — but there were no evening respite programs,” Gardner said. “We wanted to try to offer something that would expand the relief of who takes care of that person.
“They can just go home and rest, or they can go out to dinner with a friend (and) re-establish friendships. A caregiver tends to separate from all their friends because they are always tied down.”
Being free to socialize in the evenings is just one benefit of respite. Taking regular breaks goes deeper than a temporary perk.
“The job is very demanding, the job is very stressful, the job consumes you. You start not to take care of your self,” Gardener said. “In a lot of cases that caregiver ends up dying before the person that they are caring for, or will develop health problems and depression of their own.”
Recharging emotional and physical batteries with a break from caretaking duties is important. And it helps anyone responsible for a loved one with dementia to achieve a crucial long-term goal, Gardener said.
As a full-time caregiver, Sanders understands just how stressful it can be.
“I just get completely worn out, and I deal with a lot of migraine headaches,” Sanders said. “I think any caregiver needs a break so they can refresh themselves, to be ready to go back again with a clear mind.”
The care offered at programs like Young at Heart Respite also benefits the well-being of her father.
“He really likes it and enjoys it,” Sanders said. “It’s good for him to have that interaction, that stimulation, where their brain starts to fire, and they might come alive. It really does help.”