Hymns, homes and healing: exploring new approaches to dementia care

Author: Memory Lane | | Categories: Community , Community - Wellness , Local News , News , WhatsOn - Food and Drink

Assisted Living Home Richmond Hill

Mona Lancaster looks out into the backyard from the main parlour room of the house she hopes will one day serve as a dementia-friendly home. Jan 23, 2018 - Steve Somerville/Metroland

Late January sunlight streams through the tall windows of a Richmond Hill church, its golden warmth blanketing a group of strangers sharing soup, shepherd’s pie and quiet conversation.

Some of the diners have dementia, their meal prepared by young adults with mental illness who are learning cooking skills.

Later, they will all sit side-by-side in the chapel for a singalong and words of comfort.

A few hundred metres away, a cosy house called Memory Lane offers those whose minds are failing them a place where they can live with dignity and feel at home.

This is Mona Lancaster’s dream and she is slowly watching it become reality.

It may arrive too late for her own mother, but Lancaster is hopeful others will come to believe, as she does, that it is possible to live well with dementia.

Lancaster, a resident of King Township, struggled to find better care for her mother, diagnosed with dementia.

Her mother had been forced to leave her retirement home because her cognitive skills were declining, but Lancaster had heard enough horror stories about long-term care that she opted to care for her at home, instead of putting her in an institutional setting.

That proved more challenging than anticipated, with the revolving door of CCAC caregivers and lengthy wait lists for government-funded in-home services.  

Her mother suffered a stroke, developed speech problems, “sundowning” delirium, refused to take medication or allow people to toilet her — all this with Lancaster’s four teenagers living under the same roof.

When Lancaster saw a bungalow for sale in the heart of Richmond Hill, she thought she had found a solution.

Why not outfit this home for a small group of women like her mother?

The location — tucked in a cluster of trees on the north-west corner of Major Mackenzie and Yonge Street — was perfect, secluded from the hubbub, but close to the library, McConaghy Seniors Centre, walking trails and hospital.

In her research for a solution, she had discovered a successful program in Germany, where several hundred homes, operating as a kind of stakeholder co-op, provide shelter and companionship to small groups of people with mild cognitive impairment.

Families vote on decisions and are in charge of their loved ones’ care. Volunteers take them for walks, bake cookies or work on puzzles; families take turns sharing dinner with them. The cost of a round-the-clock dementia-trained caregiver is partially paid for by government funding, the remainder shared by residents’ families.

This dignified and homey approach has led to less use of medication for problem behaviours, because residents are calm and involved, Lancaster says.

Glen Zeidler, a Toronto chaplain and resident of Tottenham, heard about Lancaster’s idea and volunteered to join the fledgling board of directors.

Zeidler’s mother had dementia, too, and he worries about how future generations will cope with the looming tsunami of dementia.

“It’s incredibly stressful to see your loved one fade away,” he says.

If the Memory Lane initiative catches on, “it would be wonderful”.

Chaplains at St. Mary’s Anglican Church — whose parking lot adjoins the home’s laneway — were also inspired.

This month, the church launched a special dementia-friendly hymn-singing worship service aimed at the future residents of Memory Lane and current caregivers and their loved ones living in the community.

“When people are diagnosed with dementia, oftentimes the strongest memories are the formative ones. And with this generation, those memories are often steeped in music related to their faith and beliefs,” says Reverend Matthew McMillan.

McMillan found another way to bring the community together. He linked the dementia service to a cooking class, run by Home on the Hill in the St. Mary’s kitchen, for people with serious mental illness.

Every Friday, organizers offer a pre-service lunch, created by the cooking class, to those attending the dementia-friendly service.

“It was divine convergence,” McMillan says.

The hymn sings present a stress-free, uplifting outing rooted in childhood memories, he says.

“Music is such a powerful point of connection,” says chaplain Tom McCormick, one of two programming leaders for the dementia service. “We’ve discovered it’s quickly becoming a joyful community event.”

Meanwhile, Lancaster continues to work on her dream to link the Memory Lane home to the dementia-friendly church service and other ideas , such as a “mini day music-focused program” to encourage outings and connections among caregivers and their loved ones.

It’s early days still. The house has been gutted and renovated to accommodate five women. She is working with a small board of directors and volunteers — individuals who share a passion to make changes based on their “lived” and “professional” dementia experience.

This dream may come too late to help her mother — she passed away in 2016. But Lancaster finds this mission rewarding and healing.

“I get a chance to walk through the dementia journey again, and this time use my experience and knowledge to make and inspire changes that may help others.”