Meaningful engagement and a sense of purpose helps people living with dementia or memory-related disorders feel like they’re still connected and contributing to society. While cognitive skills may diminish, every person still has the ability to grow and learn.

That’s the thinking behind “I’m Still Here,” a pioneering, engagement-focused approach to dementia treatment. And it’s transforming and enriching the lives of California memory care residents in Elder Care Alliance (ECA) communities in the Bay Area and beyond.

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, with many living with it for more than a decade. The philosophy of the dementia care program is everyone is ‘still here’ and can experience a high quality of life from early onset to the end of the disease.

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, with many living with it for more than a decade. The philosophy of the dementia care program is everyone is ‘still here’ and can experience a high quality of life from early onset to the end of the disease.

“I’m Still Here is a powerful tool for overcoming the stigma of cognitive impairment. Instead of dwelling on the losses of dementia, it focuses on the belief that every person has an innate capability to learn and succeed, regardless of the severity of their memory loss,” said Adriene Iverson, ECA’s president & CEO.

Iverson was instrumental in bringing Dr. John Zeisel’s internationally recognized dementia care program to the West Coast. “I’m Still Here” is a guidebook to his treatment ideas and explores ways to connect with memory care patients. How? By focusing on their abilities that don’t diminish with time, such as understanding music, art, facial expressions and touch.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

The terms “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” often are used interchangeably. Dementia is an overarching disease and a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. It impairs the function of the brain, particularly the areas controlling behavior, movement, language, memory, judgment and abstract thought.

What is dementia?

The definition of dementia centers on a set of symptoms (rather than one specific disease) associated with cognitive deterioration. In addition to memory loss, symptoms can include personality and behavioral changes, as well as difficulty in reasoning, speaking, learning and performing physical tasks.

Dementia symptoms include memory and language abilities, personality and mood changes, confusion, inability to control emotions, motor function and coordination problems, hallucinations, social withdrawal, and agitation and paranoia. The association cite several examples of dementia, including problems with short-term memory, keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments or traveling out of the neighborhood

Making a difference in memory care

ECA employees working in senior memory care complete an intensive training program in Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementias, such as communication techniques and life enrichment programs.

Memory care communities work to address the four A’s of Alzheimer’s – anxiety, agitation, aggression and apathy – behaviors that were once thought of as untreatable symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias.

Team members learn to read these behaviors of residents living with dementia as indications their needs aren’t being met. They can then respond by offering activities to engage the resident in an emotionally satisfying way, which causes the behaviors to subside.

The behaviors are met with an individualized care plan aligned with the resident’s engagement, focus of attention, language expression, positive mood, accessing memories, emotional connectedness, social participation and short-term memories (events over a period anywhere from 30 seconds to several days).

A coordinated, holistic approach for those living with dementia

Additionally, ECA helps create environments to foster independence, which allows individuals living in the communities to flourish despite the severity of memory loss. The “I’m Still Here” approach engages residents in life enrichment activities and builds a culture of community that involves families and caregivers.

All aspects of care – environmental changes, communication and specialized learning techniques, staff training, and cultural and life enrichment programs – come together in a coordinated, holistic approach.

Team members and caregivers might teach Spanish, offer a Zumba class, demonstrate a cooking technique, work on a craft or lead a cultural discussion. Residents might not remember who the staff member or caregiver is, but they’ll feel positive emotions based on the associated interactions with them.

Benefits of dementia treatment

Iverson noted that since the “I’m Still Here” program was implemented, ECA’s California-based dementia care communities have experienced greater engagement, language expression, accessing of memories, emotional connectedness and short-term event memory. It’s also contributed to a reduction in the administration of antipsychotic medications, behavioral incidents and resident falls.

The approach tailors activities to the residents’ cognitive abilities and strengths, and has been shown to increase self-esteem and independence. Through activities that build self-esteem, the anxiety, agitation, aggression and apathy often associated with dementia-related illnesses are significantly decreased.

A perspective of hope

The “I’m Still Here” approach advises against testing a loved one’s memory with
questions like, “Do you remember me?” “Do you know my name?”

Instead of focusing on a person’s inability to recall something or someone, caregivers should give answers and celebrate and reinforce moments when people remember loved ones or life events that matter to them.

The idea is to acknowledge and appreciate moments when people experience joy and are engaged in an activity. While it may seem people with memory loss have short attention spans, they’ll often focus for long periods of time on events and conversations meaningful to them.

Learn more about “I’m Still Here” and Elder Care Alliance’s approach to memory care.