1940s makeover at Belfair Gardens helps Alzheimer's patients go for a walk down memory lane

abredeson@islandpacket.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Paula Richardson, Life Coordinator at Belfair Gardens, gives an ice cream cone to Cora Sumrall during an ice cream social held in new 1940s-style ice cream shop on Thursday afternoon at Belfair Gardens. The ice cream shop is part of the new wing that was decorated as a 1940s town square to help lift the spirits of the residents of Belfair Gardens who have Alzheimer's and dementia.

DELAYNA EARLEY, STAFF PHOTO

When residents of Belfair Gardens get agitated and ask to go home, Lara Williams obliges by getting them a cab -- a 1940s-era New York City taxicab.

The executive director of the Bluffton Alzheimer's and dementia care facility isn't really sending the residents home. She's using the anachronism to distract them for a few moments, which is the amount of time it takes for residents to forget they were upset.

People with Alzheimer's have a limited short-term memory. Beaufort Memorial Hospital neurologist Dr. Paul Mazzeo said the brain of an Alzheimer's patient operates differently from the brain of an average person.

"The middle part of the temporal lobe, where we store newer memories, is most damaged in Alzheimer's," he said. "Whereas the part of the temporal lobe where older memories are stored continues to work well into the progression of the disease."

Playing off that fact, Williams, who has 25 years of experience directing Alzheimer's facilities, decided to give Belfair Gardens a 1940s makeover.

Bloomfield Senior Living, the owner of Belfair Gardens, recently completed a 12,000-square-foot addition that is centered on a town square, complete with a flower shop, newsstand, candy store, jewelry store, hobby shop, movie theater, photography store, music shop and ice cream parlor. Residents are encouraged to try on jewelry, play with games, eat sweets and take advantage of any of the other amenities.

Bloomfield principal Brad Dubin said he and his partners recruited Williams, who leads the South Carolina Assisted Living Federation of America, and they created the concept. He said the addition can accommodate an extra 45 residents.

Mazzeo said programs such as what Belfair Gardens has are effective for Alzheimer's and dementia patients because it's important to trigger recollections.

"Senior proms, history lectures, golden oldies sing-alongs and the like can help reinforce those areas of the brain that still function reasonably well," he said. "In Alzheimer's, just as in other cognitive disorders, we want to play to the individuals' strengths rather than their weaknesses."

That's exactly what the Harvest Moon Ball does.

For the past three years, Home Helpers of Hilton Head, Hospice Care of America, Emeritus and Memory Matters have put on the ball every October to bring back happy memories for people who have dementia and their loved ones. The evening includes dinner and dancing and takes place at Memory Matters on Hilton Head Island. They play old music to bring back guests to a time they can remember. Home Helpers co-owner Debbie Morris said 120 people attended last year's ball.

"It's a very uplifting experience for all of us -- the volunteers, the staff -- and it's a special night for the caregivers too," she said.

Morris said one woman left the ball and said, "I never thought I would dance with my husband again. I think that's what it does. It's a positive memory and a positive experience during a difficult phase of their life."

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