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Article updated: 12/2/2012 12:35 PM

Residents find freedom, affordability at dementia care sites

Residents find freedom, comfort at dementia care sites

By Tara García Mathewson

Almira Behrendt, 94, proudly shows off her new studio apartment in White Oaks at Heritage Woods of South Elgin, an assisted-living facility offering affordable dementia care. Her new home looks out onto a beautiful courtyard. She has plants decorating the space, framed photographs on the walls and new curtains her son and daughter-in-law got her for a housewarming gift.

But Gordon Behrendt, Almira's son, says he keeps having to put the pictures back up on the walls because his mother takes them down, thinking she is moving again.

Behrendt is one of 32 people with coveted spots at White Oaks, where she can maintain some semblance of independence while getting the attention she needs for her Alzheimer's disease.

White Oaks is part of a five-site pilot project adding specialized dementia care facilities to the state's Supportive Living Program. That allows the sites to be reimbursed for services not normally covered by Medicaid and allows the operator, BMA Management, the opportunity to accept residents on a first-come, first-served basis, regardless of their financial resources.

When Gordon Behrendt and his wife, Jeanette, started looking for a home for Almira after she lived with them for three years and the care became overwhelming, they saw several places that seemed cold and sterile. About a year ago, they chose to move her to Heritage Woods of South Elgin, the main campus to which White Oaks was added.

When residents started moving into White Oaks at the beginning of November, Almira was one of 13 people to move to the Memory Care building.

White Oaks has a private dining room for people celebrating birthdays or special anniversaries, a bistro area, sunroom, beauty shop, meditation room and four wings of eight studio apartments with their own dining rooms and activity space.

"The place is just absolutely gorgeous," Behrendt said. "We were more impressed with this idea where it's more like living in their own place."

The operator, BMA Management, is the largest provider of affordable assisted-living communities in the state with 36 total sites, 34 of them operating through the Supportive Living Program.

Supportive living facilities are less expensive than nursing homes because the individuals being served need less skilled nursing attention. Before the pilot, there was not an affordable alternative to nursing homes for those with dementia who could handle less care, and it was more expensive for the state because of it.

Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said the dementia care project came in response to outreach from families and providers saying there was a need.

"It provides a nice, independent place where they can live in a more cost-effective manner and they can still get the care they need," Claffey said.

While Claffey could not say if or how soon the state might be willing to expand the dementia care side of the Supportive Living Program, he did say it has been a good offshoot so far.

Other pilot sites are in North Aurora, Effingham, Rantoul and Decatur.

Joseph Chase, executive director of North Aurora's Asbury Gardens, said the facility has 30 rooms that opened in September 2011. Like the Heritage Woods Campus, Asbury Gardens started with conventional supportive living and expanded to include dementia care. There are couples where one partner lives in the conventional community and the other lives on the Memory Care side.

"It's very therapeutic and soothing for the one with dementia to have the spouse so close by," Chase said.

That's the arrangement for Ralph and Glenna LaCroix in South Elgin. The couple moved into Heritage Woods about a year ago and Ralph moved into White Oaks earlier this month. Glenna, who has heart trouble, is able to visit her husband, who suffers from dementia, whenever she wants. They recently celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary and are only separated by a short walk from the main campus to White Oaks.

In Asbury Gardens, some couples are only separated by a hallway, Chase said. And that campus is looking to open a nursing home in coming months, completing its continuum of care for the elderly.

Trish Uttich, administrator of White Oaks, is passionate about the model for care at the new facility, giving people a beautiful, dignified living environment and honoring them for the abilities they have left.

"Your brain is everything you are; every memory you've ever had," Uttich said. "We really need to know not what's lost, but what's left, because that's where we can be successful."

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