Assisted living home provides an alliance of peers

Dean Chadwick and Dot Brannum were partners. Both women, residents at an assisted living home in Marietta, served in a novel program, as volunteer buddies matched up with fellow residents who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

It was loving, gentle work — playing games, stringing necklaces and baking desserts — with those whose memories had been plundered by the cruelest of thieves.

Chadwick, once a hospital volunteer, was in her element. But she knew it wouldn’t last.

She had Alzheimer’s, too.

Although Chadwick was in the earliest stages of the disease, it was just a matter of time before she would be on the other side of the buddy program at Emeritus at Spring Mountain, an assisted living home in Marietta.

Only a month into the program, that thief turned on Chadwick: In April, she wandered away from the senior center.

Soon after, Chadwick, 82, joined other residents with more advanced stage Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in the center’s memory care unit — a secure, but also locked, wing of the facility.

The caregiver was suddenly the care receiver.

Chadwick, however, didn’t make this transition alone. She has Dot: Her former partner is still at her side. They play games. They make soup. They remain friends.

Brannum, you see, raised her hand to be Chadwick’s helper.

And each is richer for it.

“It’s a two way thing,” Brannum said. “I was very, very lonely when I moved here. I am not so lonely anymore.”

Lonely no more

On a recent afternoon, Chadwick and Brannum sit side by side, playing bingo, joking about their bad luck in the game.

Chadwick plays the game with ease, but she leans over after every game and asks Brannum if the red plastic windows used to cover the numbers stay down. In a soft and pleasant voice, Brannum answers the question. “No, you push them up, and we start over with just the numbers showing,” Brannum said.

She’s matter of fact. She never loses patience. She answers the question each time like it’s the first time.

Wearing a gold “Buddy Volunteer” pin, Brannum spends hours every day with Chadwick. She’s also her chaperone during field trips.

And when Chadwick becomes disoriented and removes all of her clothes from the dressers, Brannum is there to help put them back.

Brannum, 74, who has Parkinson’s, said it’s rewarding to help and to feel needed. The friendship, she said, has been a boon for her since moving here from New York earlier this year.

In fact, it was Chadwick who reached out to Brannum first.

“I knew she was so lonely when she moved here,” Chadwick said. “So lonely.”

Brannum nods in agreement.

“So I made a point,” Chadwick said, “of eating every meal with her.”

Support and purpose

The buddy program at Marietta Emeritus gives residents in memory care support and companionship, said Tiffany Cox, the facility’s life enrichment director and creator of the program. But it can also give a sense of purpose for the volunteers.

Even before the program was launched, residents living more independently often gathered with memory care residents for games, morning exercises, special events. Residents naturally looked out for each other.

But the program gives permission for the volunteers to more deliberately keep an eye on, and support, their buddies. The volunteers can take residents on walks, and help the staff by making sure their buddies have their seat belts properly fastened when going on field trips.

Gilbert “Gil” Aguirre, 88, helps his buddy, Mary Thomas, play table bowling and even gets her to dance at on-site parties.

He checks on her every day. He listens to her stories about being a recital pianist. Just having someone to talk to seems to go a long way.

Widowed a year before moving to the senior home, Aguirre said helping fellow residents makes him feel good.

“Mary has a life worth exploring and I want to be here for that,” he said. “Really, it’s about companionship. We all need that before we expire.”

While Emeritus’ program is only up and running at the Marietta facility, plans are in the works to expand it to all of the company’s 400 senior homes across the country.

Cox said the program softens negative perceptions about the memory care unit, which can ultimately ease anxiety if a volunteer has to move there someday. This is particularly true for those volunteers already in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“I’ve worked a lot in memory care, and it’s seen as a bad place,” Cox said, “and it’s not a bad place. If residents spend time there, they will view it as less scary.”

It’s been a painful journey for David Chadwick to watch his mother’s decline. For many years, she worked as an auditor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His mom lived with David and his wife for 10 years. Late last year, it became clear Dean needed round-the-clock care that he couldn’t provide. His mother, who had lived in Marietta for 55 years, started getting lost driving in her own neighborhood. “She was getting bad and I had to take the car away. That is a hard thing to do to your parents,” said David Chadwick, who often visits his mother and participates in an Alzheimer’s support group there.

Still, he is comforted by his mom’s friendship with Brannum. He sees it as part of larger efforts to make the senior home as warm and nurturing as possible.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult, he said, to hold a conversation with his mother. She often loses focus. She asks for her checkbook when he and his wife visit even though she knows she can’t have it.

While family members might become distraught by the mental decline of a family member, a friend — and peer — is less likely to be as sensitive to the changes.

“She doesn’t seem very different to me,” Brannum said softly as the two take a seat on the couch.

These two still have plenty in common.

Dean Chadwick shares a story about a granddaughter having so much fun playing with the toys during a recent visit that she protested leaving. Suddenly her smile fades and she winces as she talks about missing being able to drive. She recounts the moment her son took her keys.

Brannum listens. She grabs Chadwick’s hand.

“I know ... I also don’t drive anymore,” Brannum said. “I made the decision it wasn’t safe anymore.”

After a while, Chadwick and Brannum embrace. Brannum walks Chadwick to her room, and tells her she’ll see her soon.

“She’s been a great complement to my life,” Brannum said. “I love her. She loves me. She reminds me of my mom. I normally don’t go around holding residents hands, but I don’t mind holding her hand. We are more like sisters.”