Some people like to break ground to mark the start of construction for a new facility. Vashon Community Care, on the other hand, likes to break walls.
That’s what happened on Thursday, Oct. 24, when employees of the island’s senior assisted living facility and its residents came together with hard hats and hammers to knock down chunks of the multipurpose room that will, by next year, make up part of a new wing for people experiencing memory loss.
“I’ll probably appreciate it later in life when I end up down at this end,” John Whitney, 74, a resident of VCC for almost 10 years, who was the first to participate in the wall-breaking ceremony.
The new memory care wing will consist of 16 studio apartments, common and spa areas, a garden and trail, according to Annette Crawford, interim executive director of VCC. She said providing memory care requires a more personalized approach from staff.
“The biggest difference between normal assisted living and memory care is you’re meeting the residents where they are mentally,” Crawford said. “It’s a very forgiving environment where we just have to be comfortable with what the resident wants to do because they’re going to be at different stages (of mental health).”
Programs offered by a memory care unit might be different than typical assisted living because that involves encouraging more active, group activities, Crawford said.
“Seniors might want to sit in a group of people and listen to music or go to a church service,” she said. “Whereas in a memory care unit, that engagement and that focus and attention are going to be much shorter, so … you kind of present that activity until the attention is gone and you have to move onto the next thing. It’s a different sort of meeting of residents’ needs.”
Crawford wants to hire more personnel to meet the needs of residents in the memory care wing and hopes VCC will become an expert in the field.
“Transforming Age has other memory care facilities; they’re really well-known and have a good reputation for that level of care. So, we’re really hoping to tag onto that reputation,” she said.
The construction of the new wing comes just months after Transforming Age announced VCC would close its skilled nursing unit and transition to a memory care focus. At that time, family members of residents expressed worry to The Beachcomber over what the decision would mean for their loved ones. Kevin McNamara, regional director of operations for Transforming Age, later admitted his organization could have communicated the decision to close skilled nursing in a better way.
In all, seven residents stayed at VCC after the skilled nursing unit closed and 11 transferred to either an on-island family home or an off-island skilled nursing facility, according to Anne Atwell, community relations and development director for the Vashon Community Care Foundation.
Present at the Oct. 24 ceremony, McNamara told The Beachcomber while there is no skilled nursing unit at VCC, the new memory care wing will provide a need that wasn’t being met before at the facility.
“Over the years, we’ve had people who lived in our current assisted living who got to the point where they couldn’t live here because of their dementia and had to find somewhere else to live,” he said. “So while we won’t have the short-stage skilled nursing team anymore, we’re going to fill a need that some people had to move out historically for — and sometimes off the island.”
According to Crawford, in the last two years, VCC has had to transfer eight residents out of the facility into other memory care units off-island.
“We weren’t able to take care of those folks safely because you really have to have a wander-guard system and a place for them to walk outside and they need increased services,” she said. “We actually currently have a waitlist of five people for memory care and we haven’t even done any advertising, so there is a very, very strong need for memory care.”
Not only is memory care a “more sustainable” service to offer financially, McNamara said, it’s also one that is in demand.
“I think, as people are living longer, a large number of them are afflicted with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Right now, with … the baby boomer generation, we’re going to go from 50 million today over 65 to 100 million by 2035,” he said, “So just simply the number of people who are going to need memory support and assisted living is going to continue to grow.”
Island couple Bruce Fillinger and Barry Foster were among those present for the memory care wing construction start ceremony on Thursday. Fillinger’s mother, almost 89, has been living at VCC for only a few months.
“It’s phenomenal, it really is — not that she always thinks it’s phenomenal,” Fillinger said. “The longer she’s here, the more comfortable she is, the better she does.”
Fillinger and Foster come to VCC just about every day — sometimes for hours a day — and are continuing to do that “until she settles in and knows she’s home.”
“Some of that is the memory issue she’s going through. Some of that is, she’s not familiar,” Fillinger said.
The couple was invited to the ceremony on Thursday and they hoped to learn more about what the memory care wing entails.
“Someday, she may not have a choice — and when she doesn’t have a choice, we’ve got her right here on the island and a place to move into,” Fillinger said. “I hope that doesn’t happen and I can’t control it.”
Foster said he is a supporter of VCC and the upcoming memory care unit.
“It feels great to be part of this,” he said. “It sounds like, depending on how her memory ages, she may or may not need to come to a place like this– she may be able to stay right where she is. But it’s great to know this is an option for her.”
Correction: Susan Riemer did not contribute to the story about Vashon Community Care in the Oct. 31 edition of The Beachcomber. Only information from some of her previous reports were included in the story.