November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a time to heighten awareness about Alzheimer’s disease and show support for the more than 6.2 million Americans living with it.
At Meridian Village, a Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) Life Plan Community in Glen Carbon, Illinois, Gayle Hantak, Lifestyle Enrichment Coordinator, uses the Best Friends approach with her Memory Care residents. The concept is centered around the idea that people with dementia need a best friend who empathizes with their situation, remains loving and positive, and is dedicated to helping them feel safe, secure, and valued.
Gayle uses the seven basic building blocks of the Best Friends approach to connect with residents and help them live their fullest lives. These include recognizing the dignity and rights of the person with dementia, understanding what it’s like to have dementia, knowing the person’s life story, using good communication skills, practicing patience and understanding, engaging in activities to socialize, and helping the person to feel safe, secure, and valued. “My philosophy is having patience and being as consistent as we can,” said Gayle.
Knowing each resident’s life story is key for Gayle. “It allows me to gain their trust and begin the friendship relationship,” said Gayle. “I can ask specific questions to trigger a memory from long ago. It’s amazing what they can recall from 50 years prior,” Gayle marveled.
Consistency is important for residents. Each morning in Memory Care begins with an introduction, followed by prayer, exercise and movement, and then music time. “Movement and music is vital,” notes Gayle. “Walking laps, using weights, chair exercises – anything to stimulate the mind and body, I do.” Music includes singing, listening to recorded music, attending live performances, and receiving visits from a music therapist twice each week.
In addition to group activities, residents also have time for individual projects based on their interests and abilities. “Each resident has been assessed by me on their capabilities. Because what works for one may not for another,” Gayle added. Residents spend time on word finds, puzzles, adult coloring, reading – whatever they enjoy.
“I try weekly to ‘touch’ every resident with some type of stimulation – holding their hand, walking with them, painting, or reading out loud,” Gayle said.
Last year for Christmas, Gayle worked with the residents to learn “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in sign language and perform it for their family Christmas party. This year she and her 34 residents are writing a group Christmas story! “Each resident will be able to contribute to the story. It will be read at the party by those who are able,” said Gayle.
Engaging the residents in creative new ways like this helped Gayle win the LeadingAge Illinois 2022 Rising Star Award, which recognizes an individual who has demonstrated an extraordinary performance through a strong work ethic, commitment, initiative, leadership, and the ability to be a team player in their first 24 months on the job.
Working in Memory Care is challenging and rewarding. “Some days are amazing and I feel I’ve ‘done my job’ other days can be tough,” Gayle said. “But each day is met with encouragement that we are all still together so let’s not waste this beautiful day and our wonderful lives by sitting around doing nothing. I feel blessed and lucky I get to work with these residents.”