Last Thursday at an open house event at Vashon Community Care, islander Andree Kolling looked around the spacious quarters of a new room.
The blinds were lifted, allowing the sunlight on an unusually warm Vashon day to peak in. The room included a nightstand with flowers and photos; a bed and pillow with the message “Laugh•Love•Live” and a desk with a laptop.
It was all part of VCC’s effort to mark the completion of its new memory care wing, which was constructed over the past fall and winter months. Soon, seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia will be able to move their own furniture and belongings in to reside there.
That could include Kolling, who attended the Feb. 20 open house because she is thinking about moving in.
“I know that sooner or later, I’m going to need somebody to care for me,” she said.
The new memory care wing consists of 16 studio apartments, common and spa areas, a garden and trail. The garden, while not yet complete, is named after the partner of longtime community activist Hilary Emmer.
For Wendy Kleppe, the new executive director of VCC, the completion of the wing is a milestone moment in the history of the island’s senior living facility.
“It’s just so fun to see all these many months of hard work and visioning coming together,” she said. “Everyone is just in awe of the transition and transformation.”
Kevin McNamara, regional director of operations for the Seattle-based nonprofit Transforming Age, which includes VCC under its network of senior living developments, told The Beachcomber his organization is “really excited” about how the wing turned out.
“The reaction has been, so far, really positive,” McNamara said. “It’s bright, it’s colorful, it just feels brand new, so we’re really excited.”
Kleppe said none of the 16 rooms will be occupied until at least March 1, once the state has a chance to do an inspection of the wing.
“We’ve got a ton of people that we know who are very interested,” she said. “Every year, more and more people are being diagnosed with some sort of dementia and they need that kind of care. So we know that on this island, the need will continue to grow.”
McNamara said not having seniors moved in already is nothing unusual.
“Because it’s so need-based, people have to know that you’re ready to be open,” he said. “So, while they’re getting deposits and they’re getting people in the queue that are ready to move in, really, people don’t make those final decisions until they know, ‘yes, you’re open, and now, we can really make our plans.’”
McNamara said the memory care wing will allow residents with dementia to live in an area that is secure, surrounded by staff professionals trained to care for them.
“We’re talking about people having the ability for people to have a great space to live in and a lot of different spaces to be in, without having to be followed around in an area that’s not secure,” McNamara said.
Asked about the essential elements of memory care in an interview, Kleppe touched on the security features of the wing, saying the idea for it comes from the “biggest risk” for someone with dementia.
“They want to leave a building …. but they can’t find their way back,” she said. “So the fear of someone — we call it eloping — is huge.”
Not only that, but there’s also the worry many family caregivers have of their loved ones leaving home, McNamara said.
“People start to really have a lot of anxiety around the person sneaking out of the house,” he said. “They can’t take a break, they can’t look the other way for a minute. There’s a safety issue.”
In a safe and secure environment, professionals at VCC can focus on programming with the memory care wing residents that are tailored to their cognitive ability, Kleppe said.
“Oftentimes, they are at a place in their head where they don’t remember current events, but they remember things that happened 50 years ago,” she said. “So all of the activities are focused around something that happened around a year, several years ago.”
McNamara said programming could range from music and arts to gardening and exercise.
The garden, though not yet complete, is named after Maeve Lambert, an islander who died from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014. She was the partner of island activist Hiliary Emmer.
Maeve was not a resident of VCC, Emmer told The Beachcomber, but instead stayed at Olympic Alzheimers Residents in Gig Harbor.
“This residence had two gardens that Maeve was free to be in when ever she liked,” Emmer wrote in an email. “She did spend much of her time there, outdoors among the flowers and vegetables.”
Emmer explained how she chose a garden at VCC as a way to honor her former partner.
“When I was looking for a memory place for Maeve, the need for her to be outside when ever she pleased, was so very important,” she wrote. “I do hope that the memory garden at VCC will be available to the residents all the time as well.”
Present throughout the three-hour open house were many people who either worked with seniors or had a family member interested in moving into the wing. That included Kathleen Hendrickson, a longtime worker at the Vashon Senior Center.
“It’s beautiful … comfortable, nice, new and friendly,” she said. “I hope they can fill all the space. We hope islanders have priority to the rooms.”