Memory care is about nurturing the human spirit

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Loren Shook and Steve Winner
Loren Shook and Steve Winner

Despite enormous activity by researchers, no drugs or medical procedures have yet been found for preventing or curing Alzheimer's and other memory-impairing diseases.  It is critical that their work continues and Silverado Senior Living supports it in every way. But it's also crucial to focus on improving the lives of the millions of people who currently have memory impairment and the millions more who will develop it in the future. 

Providing the memory-impaired with purpose, connecting them with friends, children, nature and joy—this is central to how the world can help them make the most of each day.  We must make it possible for those with Alzheimer's and other dementias to truly live the life all of us want for ourselves, regardless of circumstance or age.  

In the following excerpt from “The Silverado Story: A Memory-Care Culture Where Love is Greater than Fear,” we discuss how this belief is central to care at Silverado, hoping to inspire others to embrace it. 

Excerpt from the newly published book: “The Silverado Story: A Memory-Care Culture Where Love is Greater than Fear:”

A dog jumps a quick barking dance for a biscuit dangling just a whisker outside his reach.    

Rubber soles squeak as a grinning toddler makes a dash across shiny tiles.

Chairs scrape up to a table and hammers begin pounding nails into wood in an unsyncopated tap, tap-tap, tap.

A male voice calls out: “We need you at men's club,” and another answers: “I'm coming, I'm coming.”  Out of sight, drums thump in varying tones and rhythms.  The front door swings opens with a whoosh. Three teenagers spill in, all talking at once.

Silverado Senior Living is a noisy place. 

People aren't here to rest or to be silent, to slip quietly from the society that all too often doesn't want to hear their sounds.

They come here to live. 

They are people with Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, Parkinson's, and a host of other memory-impairing illnesses with names that confer a sense of the alien on fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, and close friends.   As their condition progresses, garbling their speech and reason, they become strangers to those around them and to themselves. 

Your loving spouse of 50 years, the parent you relied on, the sibling whose tandem experience with your own makes the world familiar: These people are gone. 

Or so it seems, until you step into Silverado.

Because at its core, there's the belief – no, call it knowledge based on experience – that if embraced by the wider world, Silverado will transform the lives of all those who have memory-impairment and enrich the souls of everyone else.  It's an insight that puts aside fear and replaces it with love.

What Silverado knows is that the human spirit glows until we take our last breath.  While memory-impairment erodes the spirit's ability to express itself through words and actions considered normal, it doesn't mean the spirit is not present. It still shines, but speaks differently.   And if outsiders can't understand this different kind of communication, then we must work together to figure it out.  It's like learning a new language. Once you begin grasping what seemed incomprehensible, new vistas, new possibilities open. 

A memory-impairing disease is tragic, yes.  You absorb the weight of its despair if it touches you through a loved parent, spouse, partner, sibling, friend.  But in devoting time, effort, and love to detecting this new way to communicate, to accepting the memory-impaired as they are and to building new lives and relationships for and with them, we advance our own humanity, our own purpose.   This is the vision of Silverado.

What makes life worth living?  We are each a patchwork quilt of individual likes, dislikes, ambitions, desires, experiences, and genetic potpourri.  But when you lay the quilts side by side and examine them, you see the stitching that unites the squares. 

In all of us, there is the need to love and be loved.  A need to be understood and appreciated, to surge through the day with purpose, bask in the warmth and light of sunshine, connect with animals, children, flowers, and simple pleasures the earth yields up to us. These are the things that feed our spirit.

Silverado knows these needs never change, regardless how altered a person appears to be by Alzheimer's disease or any other memory disorder.

For those of us with unimpaired memory, life is linear. We're born; we grow into children, teenagers, adults. Last year, this year, yesterday, today, tomorrow, this happened and that happened. But for people with Alzheimer's and similar conditions, today could be 20 years ago. An adult child is mistaken for a long-deceased mother. When those we love start stepping off the straight line, we try desperately to refocus them to normal. No, today is Tuesday.  I'm not your mother; I'm your daughter. Don't you remember you already ate lunch?

When we realize we can't fix their memories, many of us turn away, withdrawing into our own pain. What's the point of trying to connect when they won't remember, anyway? What's the point of anything, other than keeping these frail and confused people safe, comfortable, clean, and fed?

Silverado is a memory-care organization that knows the vision isn't really about memory.  It's about reaching and nurturing the human spirit inside each memory-impaired person.  It doesn't matter what the day of the week is.  What matters is that the day gives meaning.

Public policy and health experts call the rise in memory-impairing diseases an epidemic.  They hope this word will galvanize America's attention and action.  It's a well-intentioned effort to convey the issue's magnitude.  But of course, unlike the plague, influenza, polio, and other illnesses that have terrorized humanity for centuries, memory-impairment is not contagious. 

As a society, though, we treat people with Alzheimer's and other memory disorders as if they have something the rest of us might catch. When they become less able to participate in normal life and their behavior strays from the linear path, we isolate them behind drawn shades and closed doors at home or within institutions where few but staff and dutiful family ever appear. 

As with contagious diseases, we do this primarily to protect ourselves.  We don't worry we'll catch their condition, but their memory-impairment frightens us, confuses us, makes us angry.  Sometimes, what they do and say repulses us.

But when we stop nurturing their human spirit through meaningful connection with the world, we hasten their decline. Depression, loneliness, feelings of worthlessness aggravate their symptoms and their overall health.  We're cutting off the oxygen that feeds the inner flame. Their spirits rebel, flicker, and die.

America's propensity to solve all ills with a pill contributes to the sad lives that so many memory-impaired endure. It's easiest and seems natural in today's world to load more prescriptions into their bodies in an effort to “get their behavior under control.” So they swallow as many as 15 different drugs a day, stupefying the spirit. Those who don't sink into an almost constant sleep often lash out verbally and physically. What's mistaken for incurable aggression in the memory-impaired is the spirit's cry of protest against the regimen that suffocates their self-expression.

Research primarily seeks to find a pharmacological cure for memory-impairment and a way to prevent it. This quest dominates media coverage of Alzheimer's and shapes the public discussion. Silverado strongly supports this research. But the organization is also passionately leading the way on improving the daily lives of those with memory impairment in the here and now. 

What if as a society we overcame our fears of Alzheimer's disease and responded to it with love? What if this disease represents an opportunity? What if we accepted and embraced those with memory impairments? We would find out what Silverado experiences every day: Our own spirit flourishes and we evolve through selfless love and service to the memory-impaired.

We ask that you help us in bringing about this transformation:

    Embrace this cause with love.

    Put aside fear.

    Discover that in giving of yourself, you are changed forever.

Loren Shook is the president and CEO of Silverado Senior Living, and the vice chairman of the board of the Assisted Living Federation of America. Steve Winner is Silverado's senior vice president and chief of culture, and a former president of the Alzheimer's Association.

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