By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor
When Mary Ann Vacco speaks of her son, her face lights up. She’s proud of his talents, his devotion to her and the new apartment for her he is building in his home. She recently suffered a stroke and has just moved out of a nursing home.
“He said, ‘Mother, you took care of me all those years, now I’m going to take care of you.’”
This devotion to care is a testament to a loving family, but it can also be an incredible drain on the caregiver. This is especially the case if the family member who needs care requires the time and attention that physical limitations, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease require.
What’s more, the family member needing care may struggle through lonely days with little company beyond the sound of the television. They might even inadvertently endanger themselves or others.
Instead, Mary Ann spends a few days a week at the St. Francis Social Adult Day Care program located at 1108 Court St. in Syracuse. “I go to church, I play games and Bingo,” Mary Ann said. “The people are nice and they have good food, a good variety.”
This year, the program is celebrating 20 years of providing a safe and stimulating environment for elderly people to socialize during the day.
“We are a small program with a stable and excellent staff. Everybody on our staff knows the family members of the patients,” said day care administrator Sister Barbara Jean Donovan, OSF. Aides take the time to speak with family members as they drop the participants off, and this provides an
opportunity to check on any small changes in the participants’ appetites or behaviors.
“We put them in contact with resources if they need help with this or that,” she said. They also refer families to support groups if necessary. “If we support the family, they support their family member. We’re all in it together,” she added.
She said the program improves the quality of life for both participants and their family members who are able to work, run errands or just enjoy some time to themselves.
“[Family members] have said it has saved them from despair. We believe as well, although it’s not documented, that we have prevented abuse,” Sister Barbara Jean said.
“What happens is people with dementia or limitations basically get worse. One of the problems family members have is determining what worse means.” The day might come, she said, when the person with dementia decides to go for a walk or start the gas stove to cook a meal. “It’s that change of pattern that is so risky for people.”
As a caregiver, Patricia Verrette’s pattern of life changed when her mother, Helen Gitchell, had a stroke on July 4, 2007. “She was living in Texas and it was determined that she couldn’t live alone,” Verrette said.
The family built an addition onto the house, moved Gitchell and her belongings across the country and Verrette retired from work to stay home with her. “I did not trust anyone to take care of her,” she said.
Then, in August, Verrette’s husband got sick with acute pancreatitis. Although Verrette has a sister, she lives in Albany and works full-time. There seemed like nowhere to turn.
“I needed something, somebody,” Verrette said.
Then she heard about the St. Francis Social Adult Day Care program from a woman she worked with. Verrette said she now has the time to take care of her husband during the day, and her mother comes home chatting about the people at the program or the chorus that came to sing Christmas carols.
“It’s nice for me to feel very confident that I can leave her here and I can trust that she will be taken care of,” Verrette said. “I have enough other things to worry about with my husband, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a long time.”
Michael Tornatore has been a participant in the program for a few years now. “It’s a nice place to meet your friends and to share life with them,” he said.
He sat at a table by a window in the main room that looks out on busy birdfeeders. At one end of the main room are some basic kitchen facilities, at the other end there is a television, stereo and a big ring of recliners. Across the hall there’s another room that serves as a hairdresser’s salon, and next to it a room for crafts where tables are covered with the most recent project: painted ceramic angels.
Tornatore said he had also made two paper mache piggy banks. “They hold a lot of money,” he joked.
A retired high school principal, Tornatore said one of the aspects he most enjoys about the program is the daily trivia or brain teaser quizzes. As some of the program participants gathered around a table, an aide held up a game card and asked those gathered to guess what was written on the card. “I’m a thing. It took 26 months to build me. I bear the name of my engineer….”
There are also mobility and exercise programs, hydration programs and a nutrition schedule that includes two snacks and a hot lunch. Meals are adapted to suit the dietary needs of the participants.
Activities are switched every 45 minutes and there is the opportunity, but not requirement, for participants to attend daily Mass. Children from the nearby Gingerbread House Day Care Center visit each week. There is time to discuss current events, watch a TV show or listen to music.
But if a participant just doesn’t feel up to taking part in the scheduled events, that’s fine, too.
“We never force people to do anything,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “They’re never isolated or criticized for what they do or don’t do. Everybody, when they enter the doors, is the same. We love them all.”
While the program has led to so many positive outcomes — reduced agitation, increased mobility, opportunities to form and maintain friendships — it also faces some difficulties. One is the cost. The day care costs $57 a day for over five and a half hours, and $47 a day for under five and a half hours.
Sister Barbara Jean said about half of the families pay that expense out-of-pocket.
“Many of our caregivers are the spouses, which means they’re in their 80s and living on a fixed income,” she said. “Long-term care insurance is a new thing, and for most of the people who come here, it wasn’t available when they were thinking, ‘What are we going to do when we get older?’”
The Onondaga County Department of Aging and Youth has two grants that can help pay for adult day care, and Sister Barbara Jean is always willing to help families find out more. The program also has contracts with the Syracuse VA Medical Center, Visiting Nurse Association of Central New York and the Program of All-Inclusive Care (PACE).
Another difficulty is that the program does not provide transportation. They do, however, provide a list of transportation vendors who are able to safely deliver participants to the program.
There are two sites available for the Social Adult Day Care program, but the other site located just a few yards away isn’t being used right now. That means the program has the ability to double its current enrollment of around 35 people.
Mary Clement has been a participant in the program for a few years, but she couldn’t recall exactly how many. “What was the year I started here? I couldn’t tell you. What was the year I had my heart surgery? I couldn’t tell you that, either. I have discovered that I’m getting to the age where I’m very forgetful,” she said.
She will celebrate her 91st birthday on Dec. 27.
But Clement doesn’t seem at all forgetful when she talks about traveling across the country with her husband, swimming and golfing and playing the piano. She said the program allows her to meet people and talk in a way she hadn’t been able to for years.
She also talked about the crafts, daily Mass and games she has enjoyed.
One recent favorite was volleyball. “Oh, it was a lot of fun. We were told to quit, that our time was up, and somebody said, ‘Oh, no, we have to play a little longer!’ So they extended our time,” she said, laughing.
“It makes you think of other things besides yourself, and you don’t dwell on ‘I don’t feel good.’ It’s a distraction,” she said. “I love it. I just enjoy seeing people and visiting with them because I didn’t have an opportunity to talk like I do now. The TV was my only source of company.”