By guest writer Rachael Wonderlin
Senior living has a lot of challenges around dementia care. Most often, I meet companies who offer “memory care,” but lack any real plan or cohesive structure for their memory care program.
My role is to help companies change that—how can we create unique, defined, positive spaces for individuals living with dementia? How do we create something that can be replicated across all buildings that a company owns and operates?
Partnering with Sonida Senior Living
When I first started talking with the team at Sonida Senior Living, it was through a LinkedIn conversation. I’d struck up a conversation with one of their Operations team members and she was very interested in what I offered. I didn’t know this at the time, but I had reached out at exactly the right time: the team was ready to make some big changes in the way they offered dementia care.
While Sonida Senior Living offered memory care (i.e. secure dementia care units in their buildings), they didn’t have a consistent dementia care offering across all of their buildings. This is common in senior living: it’s incredibly challenging to ensure all of your company’s buildings offer the same program. I’m always happy when an organization sees that there is more they could do for their residents, and the team at Sonida Senior Living recognized this.
The team and I worked together over the next fourteen months to brainstorm, develop and roll out a comprehensive dementia care program called Magnolia Trails. We worked on every aspect of this program: programming for residents, education for staff, information for families, marketing, branding, dining, interior design and more.
There is always a fear that, as a consultant, you finish your work with an organization and they don’t continue what you worked on together. Unfortunately, that has happened to me in the past, so I always get a little nervous as I begin to move away from a project.
It’s become clear to me, however, that I never needed to worry about Sonida Senior Living. In fact, they’ve grown the program and continued to iterate and create—something most organizations never do.
“After some time spent in other nice facilities, we finally discovered The Waterford. Their warmth and care for our loved one is unmatched,” one family says. “We and our parent feel like part of a community where our presence and contribution is welcome. At The Waterford, they care for the whole person. We couldn’t be happier!”
I love this quote and I love how the success of this program has changed the lives of Sonida Senior Living’s residents. It’s amazing to step back from a program and see it grow and thrive.
Learn more about a community near you
Pillar #1: Focusing on care first
The care of your loved one comes first. This means that our residents drive every aspect of the experience we provide from the physical layout and design of our communities to dining options, programming and activities.
For this pillar, we wanted to focus on the most important aspect of caregiving: excellent care for the person living with dementia.
Magnolia Trails Directors, and the other team members at the community, are crucial to ensuring the dementia care space is the best it can be for its residents.
“Natalie and Dana were invaluable resources when my mother-in-law was in the hospital and subsequent rehab facility following a bout with COVID-19,” a resident family member said. “While they looked out for my mother-in-law’s best interest, they also never lost sight of the safety of the rest of the residents and staff. My mother-in-law will require assisted living for the rest of her life, but I have not found a more caring and beautiful facility than Greenbriar Village and I thank my stars daily that Dana, Natalie and the rest of the staff at Greenbriar Village treat all residents with dignity and compassion.”
Pillar #2: Creating the environment
We take great strides to create physical spaces that feel fresh and familiar where our residents are engaged and calm. By adjusting the decor, sounds, smells, touch and taste, we strive to make your loved one feel as comfortable as possible.
When you walk into a dementia care community, you should know that it’s a dementia care community by the way it’s set up. You’ll spot an overall design that is built for people living with dementia.
When creating a new dementia care space, you need to talk about interior design and how it fits the needs of residents. As we rolled out the Magnolia Trails program, we spent time with each community’s Magnolia Trails Director and discussed design.
“When I told my mother-in-law we would need to move into a memory care community, I spent weeks visiting and assessing just about every memory care in Central Indiana. Most are cold places without a homey feel—the buildings are drab, both inside and out, and the staff is cordial at best,” one family member says. “When I finally went to Greenbriar Village, I was met with smiling faces and warm, sensitive conversations about my mother-in-law. The building is gorgeous, both inside and out, and it is very inviting when you step through the doors.”
Dementia care design needs to meet residents living with dementia where they are. The physical space needs to reflect the internal reality of each person, and for most people living with dementia, that reality is not the year 2022.
One of the best spaces you can add to a dementia care community is what we call a “baby station” – a place where residents can interact with baby dolls that look and feel real. For many people living with dementia, their reality is that the babies are indeed real. Caring for a baby provides them with a sense of purpose and independence, which are two things people often (accidentally) strip from adults living with cognitive impairments.
Magnolia Trails communities have done a beautiful job bringing these “life stations” into reality. Baby stations are popular at all Magnolia Trails buildings, and for good reason: the teams really took the concept and ran with it.
Life stations are always available to engage our residents living with dementia. Baby dolls, realistic-looking stuffed animals, desks to work at, and more, are all a part of the dynamic programming happening at Magnolia Trails.
The family member continued, “I then met Natalie and we were instantly sold. Natalie is caring, sensitive and seems to really care about making the residents in memory care feel at home; providing opportunities for activities, assisting them with their personal interests (gardening, for one) and she is always available to answer questions and provide assistance.”
Pillar #3: Embracing moments
Our programming is responsive and offers flexible timing for residents, enabling them to choose their activities throughout the entire day. Creativity Boxes offer activities of engagement, and Interactive Stations are always available.
One of the biggest challenges that dementia care communities face is the planning and coordinating of a dementia care calendar. So often, that’s the biggest thing that senior living providers are lacking: a strong calendar and the ability to execute excellent programming.
Magnolia Trails Directors are vetted for a number of skillsets—perhaps the most important one being the creation of a solid dementia care calendar. Even during the interview, we find out if the new Magnolia Trails Directors can create a calendar.
When days are hectic in a dementia care community, the structure of a resident’s day is the first thing to go. At Magnolia Trails, we recognize this reality and actively work to ensure this doesn’t happen.
One family member said, “The staff seems to genuinely care about the residents. They try to do the things the residents like to do. Our dad is not a very social man, but we see them trying to include him!”
Importance of a schedule
Before a resident moves into a Magnolia Trails community, the team learns about the new resident through a “Life History Questionnaire.” In order to provide the best possible care, we need to know who that person is as an individual: we need to know that person’s likes, dislikes, story, who they are and where they’ve come from.
Incorporating these items into a dynamic activity calendar is a huge part of keeping Magnolia Trails communities active, inviting places for adults living with dementia to live.
Team members assist the Magnolia Trails Directors with activities and programming, too. The team at Dementia By Day trained teams on the use of “Creativity Boxes,” which are easy-to-use, pre-made programming boxes. These can be socks to sort, hand towels to fold, silverware to organize, or any other hands-on tasks. Residents feel great when they’re asked to help with these tasks throughout the day.
One family member said, “I met Natalie and we were instantly sold. Natalie is caring, sensitive and seems to really care about making the residents in memory care feel at home; providing opportunities for activities, assisting them with their personal interests (gardening, for one) and she is always available to answer questions and provide assistance.”
Pillar #4: Making family connections
We are committed to providing family members with tool kits and guides to help you understand dementia and the care that is needed. You can count on ongoing collaboration and consistent communication regarding your loved one’s care. Our staff shares real-time photos and video and updates about your loved ones via Facebook, so you can always feel connected.
Families are a key—and often-overlooked—part of the resident experience in senior living communities.
Dementia brings with it many challenges, and one of the biggest ones is the considerable amount of grief and loss that families deal with on a day-to-day basis. The only way to combat this loss is to give families what they need most: education and assistance.
In most senior living communities, the only time a family hears from the building is when something terrible, like a fall, has happened to a loved one living there. At Magnolia Trails, teams share information with families before something difficult happens.
How does Magnolia Trails keep families informed?
Magnolia Trails asks residents’ families for detailed life histories before the move and also asks families for a photo of each person for their shadowbox outside each door. These photos—always from when a resident was in their teens, 20s or 30s—help residents find their rooms, encourage conversation, and remind the staff of where this person came from.
One family member wrote in, “The team provides peace of mind for me and my family that our loved one is being well cared for.”
Magnolia Trails communities also email copies of the programming calendar and monthly newsletter to families with photos and upcoming events. This ensures that families are aware of what programming is planned for their loved ones. Put simply, it keeps families in the loop.
“The staff in my mom’s community is experienced, friendly, and always listens to my dad and me,” another said.
Magnolia Trails Directors are part of the move-in process, gathering information, and getting to know the resident and family members before the resident moves into the neighborhood. There is continuous contact via face-to-face, phone, text, and email to ensure the Magnolia Trails Director is consistent support for families.
The team at Sonida Senior Living has become a powerful force for dementia care education and assistance for families when they need it most.
Pillar #5: Providing food and nutrition
Many of the moments that matter most happen around the table. That’s why our dining program focuses on proper nutrition, dignity and a welcoming environment. We provide fresh ideas for food choices, seating options and atmosphere, and we are dedicated to ensuring your loved one receives healthy, nourishing meals and snacks to optimize their health.
Giving memory care residents different food from assisted living residents is a common occurrence and problem in senior living. Teams may assume the residents living with cognitive impairments won’t realize their food options aren’t that plentiful.
While this may be technically true, our residents living with dementia still suffer because of it; they eat less, they enjoy dining less, and overall, they decline.
How does Magnolia Trails ensure residents living with dementia get the nutrition they need?
“We offer restaurant-style dining, three snacks and hydration daily. Our afternoon snack is made by the residents, or is an eclectic snack provided by the dining team,” one Magnolia Trails team says.
The response to this has been amazing and widespread. “Our mother loves the food!” one family told us.
Magnolia Trails seeks to make dining more than just a get-in-and-get-out experience, the way it often is in senior living communities.
Another family member said, “The variety is good and there are options if you don’t want what the main meal is.”
Not only are there great meals, but there are also plenty of snacks throughout the day. Think about your own life: do you eat more than 3 meals a day? Most likely! And, when Magnolia Trails teams offer snacks to residents, they always ask, “Would you like this or that?” This provides residents with a choice, but it also doesn’t leave snack time open-ended. Asking a person living with dementia, “Do you want something to eat?” is simply too vague and confusing.
“My loved one receives a balanced diet and plenty of food,” a family wrote in.
People living with dementia deserve the same dignity and dining experience as everyone else in senior living.
One family said, “He has always been a picky eater but he does eat well and seems to enjoy the food.” Another family told the team, “The staff has to prompt her to eat, but they are able to get her to eat more than we could at home!”
Encouraging people living with dementia to eat can be a challenge, but Magnolia Trails is happy to tackle the task.
Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and educator. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is a Johns Hopkins University Press two-time published author. Rachael is the owner of Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting firm and education company.
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