Traditions keep memories alive, say Reutlinger experts

The most vivid memories for many afflicted with Alzheimer's tend to be those of the distant past — childhood, young adulthood and the traditions from those times, says Rabbi Michael Goldberg, spiritual adviser of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

"Our Traditions program took its name from those things we find lasting about us as Jews. It's a way of connecting."

The Traditions program at the Reutlinger facility is a wing dedicated to the care and nurturing of Alzheimer's/respite care residents at the facility for seniors.

Much planning and professional consultation went into designing the-state-of-the-art Alzheimer's unit and implementing its innovative programs. Gordon Giles, an occupational therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology, was instrumental in developing the unit's architectural design as well as setting up the social and interpersonal environment. "We wanted to help individuals with Alzheimer's retain a sense of comfort, security and well-being and to develop systems for the staff to insure the provision of high-quality care."

To that end, the homelike environment is laid out with clean lines, plenty of space and non-obvious exits. Bedroom suites open directly onto the common lounge, activity nooks and interactive kitchen to minimize confusion. A secured courtyard gives residents access to fresh air.

The program's structure emphasizes "engagement activities," said Giles, explaining that for most people, their fondest memories center around food. For that reason, such activities as making latkes for Chanukah serve as a means of promoting interaction and conversation.

Music is another component of the program, and singing holiday songs and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah have the ability to stir the deepest memories and touch people in otherwise unreachable places.

Memory boxes outside each resident's room, filled with photos, knick-knacks and favorite mementoes, serve as reminiscence devices to orient each resident to his or her location.

Interactive art installations, with themes such as cooking, sewing or gardening, hang throughout the wing. Residents are encouraged to manipulate the tactile items on display — a Mixmaster with moving parts, a sewing machine or a gardening hat for instance — to enhance their manual dexterity.

Traditions program director Penny Mix recalls one resident, a former Hebrew teacher, who enjoyed reading aloud from the open prayer book on the Judaica art display. Mix sees herself not only as an advocate for the residents but for the staff as well. She recognizes the challenges of working on an Alzheimer's unit and is grateful for a committed staff.

Jim Hillman of Oakland agrees. He moved his mother, Bertha, into the Traditions program last August and praises the workers' dedication and kindness towards the residents. "They just keep giving more. It's like having extra family there."

Almost a third of the residents in the Traditions program are not Jewish. Giles, who also is not Jewish, believes that when looking for Alzheimer's care, relatives may be less influenced by religious beliefs and more interested in the service and quality of care. An effort is made to provide for the spiritual needs of the non-Jewish residents. In December, singers from a local parish sang for those who could not leave the premises and who otherwise would miss out on their holiday traditions.

"Every person has the right to spiritual care according to their needs from their own tradition," said Goldberg. "That's a teaching of Jewish law."

For Suzanne Sloane, a registered nurse and administrator of the entire Reutlinger facility, a highlight of the Traditions program is the ability to keep spouses together. She cites an example of a couple in which the husband is in the assisted-living section while his wife now lives in the Traditions unit.

"Every morning he comes over and he takes her and they just sit together as they always have," Sloane said. "This program gives them the ability to still be together and maintain that closeness."