Care Center Promotes Independence and Dignity for Those with Alzheimer’s

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Adult Day Care at the McCoy Center near Birmingham Southern College in western Birmingham. (Frank Couch, For The Birmingham Times)

Each week, more than a dozen seniors arrange chairs to form a drum circle at the McCoy Adult Day Care Center in the College Hills neighborhood and experiment with a variety of percussion instruments. When all the seats are occupied, drum circle instructor Walker Wright enters the old-church-turned-community-center with a cart full of djembe drums, bongos, tambourines, and other unique African-inspired instruments. Wright provides a beat, and the seniors follow, filling the room with sound.

This is a typical Friday at the McCoy center, which specializes in services for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. McCoy is not a medical facility, however; it’s a social center that averages 25 to 30 clients a day and provides music, art, and other therapies.

During a recent visit to McCoy, the benefits were apparent. Clients could be heard laughing and talking with staff in the other room, as if they were catching up with old friends and family. Between scheduled activities and meals, residents stay busy with games like bingo and crossword puzzles to keep their minds active.

Being in a social setting is important, said McCoy Director Vivian Story: “The things that require a group setting really help because we’re social creatures.”

“Since you’ve been here you’ve heard laughing,” Story told a reporter visiting the center. “That’s important.”

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks; it is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering, reasoning) and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.

Clients take part in a drum circle before lunch.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregivers Month.

Therapy … and Much More

Art is a big component of the therapy at McCoy because it helps with cognitive functioning.

“[Clients are asked,] ‘Who do you want in your picture? What colors do you want to use?’” said McCoy Executive Director Judy Poole. “This allows them to make decisions and lets them see that they are still able to do things. Some of it just makes them feel good about themselves.”

Independence is essential: “Before they had Alzheimer’s or dementia, they were independent,” she said, “and we want them to still have that independence and dignity.”

Each individual must be treated with respect, “as a person of worth and dignity,” Poole said. “Don’t talk about them like they’re not in the room. Treat them with … the understanding of their limitations.”

Patience is key, said Program Manager Shay Curry.

“You tell them to do something, they hear you, and they jump up to do it because they don’t want your assistance,” she said. “They’re not being belligerent. They’re just showing you that they can still do it. … The patience factor truly is a virtue, and you will learn it by helping others.”

Emotional safety is another concern.

“If they think they’re coming to work, put them to work. If they think they’re coming to be catered to, cater to them,” Poole said. “We’re going to help them feel emotionally secure—and that’s different for everybody, depending on their issues.”

The Center

The McCoy Adult Day Care Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the facility has 18 people on staff.

That’s a great benefit, Story said: “We have a small client-to-staff ratio because we average about 25 to 30 clients. That way, each client will have a person to walk with them, go to the restroom with them. Our cost is reasonable. We’re a faith-based organization.”

The entire floor is locked down every day, visitors must be buzzed in, and doors to the outside automatically lock upon being closed.

“We do have wanderers,” Story said. “But as far as security, nobody can get out.”

A challenge at McCoy has been “getting people in the door,” Poole said. “Even though we’ve been around for more than 30 years, [the center is] still a best-kept secret.”

The reward for the McCoy staff is seeing that clients are happy and knowing that caregivers have peace of mind.

“If the clients have laughed during the day, I know that we have done good,” said Poole

A Good Day

The drum circle during a recent visit was a good day for all.

Each person got an instrument and played in a way that matched his or her personality. Some banged loudly while singing, some banged softly, but they all played to the same beat. A few talked about African instruments, and one participant said the instrument held by drum circle instructor Wright was from Ghana. She even shared information about the instruments, explaining how they were used in slavery and in different African countries as a way of communication.

Clients play a game of BINGO at the McCoy Center.

When the circle ended, the clients sat with each other to play a game of bingo.