It's no fun getting old, but Erin McCart tries to make it easier.
As the program services coordinator at Arden Courts Memory Care in Geneva, the people she's helping aren't just getting older. They're suffering from memory loss, Alzheimer's or dementia. Sometimes they can't remember things from five years ago, sometimes it's five minutes. McCart's job is to help them by designing and leading programs that not only sharpen cognitive function, but to help them get through the day while having some fun.
"The programs play a really big role in our residents lives," McCart says. "They need routine, and without the programs, the routine gets kind of boring. I like to bring meaningful opportunities for our residents throughout the day."
Sometimes it's daily programs like mind aerobics or trivia that are centered on the season or a recent holiday. Other times it's craft projects, like the rainbow centerpieces they made for a St. Patrick's Day party. One of the funnier ways is through a program called "laughter yoga."
"You might think it's silly, but our body doesn't know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter," McCart says. "We get the same benefits by faking our way through laughter, which almost always leads to real laughter.
"Endorphins are released and they just feel better afterward."
McCart got started volunteering at a nursing home while in college, but her personal life and career paths crossed when she found out in grad school that her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
"Watching them go through the disease can be heartbreaking," McCart says, "watching their loved ones watch them go through it is what really gets you."
Though she's only been at Arden Courts for 10 months, bonds with residents grow quickly.
"There was one resident, Donna, who I became especially close to," she says. "I basically watched Donna die from this disease over the course of seven months, and it was heartbreaking. But watching how devoted and faithful (her husband Gene) was to her throughout their ordeal was inspiring."
She's currently planning a surprise outing for Dorothy Pingle, another resident with whom she's especially close. They're going to a Willie Nelson concert in hopes of meeting the legendary singer.
"For her to have that memory of going out and meeting Willie Nelson, it might be months from now that she might forget what she did, but in that moment, for her to experience something like that …," McCart smiles and her thought trails off. Just don't tell Dorothy; it's a secret.