Northland community offers meaning and purpose for seniors with dementia

The small dents in her mom’s car represented much more than a potential repair bill.

“There were some clear red flags that she was going to need more support than what she was going to get at home.”

Several years ago, Marsha Rufener joined thousands of U.S. adult children who make the difficult choice each year to move an elderly parent into a care facility. A few years later, after her mother showed worsening symptoms of dementia, Rufener moved her once again, this time to the Memory Support community of Senior Star at Wexford Place, a retirement and assisted living facility in the Northland.

Rufener is executive director of Wexford Place and accustomed to helping families navigate the emotional waters of moving an elderly parent out of the home. But her experience didn’t make her own decision less challenging.

“Intellectually, when you work in the field, you know this is what needs to happen,” she says. “But it’s always different when it’s you personally because then you’re dealing with layers of emotions with the changes you see in your parents.”

Rufener’s mother was still dealing with the recent loss of her husband, and her worsening dementia was interfering with daily tasks like shopping, paying bills and taking her medications.

“That role reversal you experience where this is somebody who cared for you and raised you, and now you’re in the situation where you have to make decisions for them is a pretty big shift,” she says. “It’s a difficult decision for any adult child.”

Serving seniors age 55 and older, Wexford opened its Memory Support community in 2014, offering a “casual elegance lifestyle.” Currently, the neighborhood is home to 44 residents, most with some level of dementia (including many with Alzheimer’s) as well as Parkinson’s and other age-related dementia.

The community’s customized treatment and activities are crucial to provide a sense of purpose and meaning.

“Residents with dementia have experienced a great deal of loss, so it’s important we provide an environment where everything is set up for them to be successful,” she says.

Often, that’s something as simple as one of the center’s “Destination Stations,” or basic activities that provide a simple sense of accomplishment—folding some towels, for example.

“That’s an activity that they recall how to do,” Rufener says. “It’s a rote activity and something that’s familiar, and they can successfully feel like they’ve completed a task.”

After the first priority of keeping residents safe, Memory Support focuses on helping them feel worthwhile. For Rufener’s mother, that meant learning about her many years as a secretary and finding ways to provide the satisfaction that’s always come from work. She now serves as “front desk supervisor,” helping staff with administrative tasks.

“She has absolutely loved that,” Rufener says. “She’s taught some of them how to write shorthand, she helps them with filing—activities she can connect to that help her feel important and feel like she’s contributing. They call her ‘boss.’”

For many residents with progressed dementia, Rufener emphasizes the continued importance of a family connection, something she especially appreciates now that she’s so close to her mother on a daily basis.

“It’s nice to be able to just pop in, even if it’s just for five minutes,” she says. “Just being able to share a few moments together and let her know I’m thinking of her and love her. Families struggle when a loved one has dementia . . . but it’s really not important if they remember your name; what’s important is they know you’re somebody who loves them and cares for them.”