The days Kathleen could make her mom laugh were her favorite. A giggle might be won through continuous banter and large doses of family humor that Kathleen conjured up from her childhood memories, or in response to one of Kathleen’s own frequent grins. Kathleen never failed to be creative in finding new ways to seek that cherished reward – the loud, familiar, burst of laughter that she has loved hearing from her mother since she was a little girl.
Kathleen Roberts is Living Branches’ new director of dementia care strategy. She has been a part of the Living Branches family since 1995, when both her parents moved into the Dock Woods community. Her father passed away in 2011, and her mother, who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, just passed away recently. Kathleen knows firsthand how challenging it can be to support a loved one with any form of dementia, but she also knows that dealing with dementia – as is true with any of life’s biggest challenges – is exponentially easier when you stand together.
With this very philosophy in mind, Living Branches created Kathleen’s new position as an important first step in a comprehensive program that aims to bring together best practices in memory care – connecting ideas and experts both within our diverse Living Branches campuses and the larger community, from local organizations to partners from around the world.
“This new role will allow Living Branches to collaborate with universities that are doing research, to share ideas with other communities, and to talk with leaders in the field to learn about cutting edge practices and research – all in the effort of helping residents and families who are living with dementia lead the best lives possible,” said Edward D. Brubaker, Living Branches CEO and President.
Kathleen’s efforts won’t just be focused on Living Branches’ Memory Care areas; the program will benefit all residents and even people in the surrounding communities. For many couples, one spouse is starting to exhibit signs of dementia, and the other is the primary caregiver; or, in other cases, a parent has received a diagnosis, and the child is now stepping in to provide support. The need is huge, and the challenges are many – but the rewards of expanding Living Branches’ Memory Care outreach and partnerships will create countless opportunities to make a difference to the many seniors and their loved ones who are living with dementia.
“Personally, I can’t think of anyone better who could tackle such a large undertaking for our community than Kathleen,” said Ed. “She is certainly no stranger to challenges. As a matter of fact, a few years ago, she decided to make a complete 180-degree turn in her career – transforming from the owner of a successful IT security company to an eager initiate in the world of senior care. In addition, Kathleen’s connection to Living Branches and the community runs deep as does her passion for improving the lives of our residents. This strong commitment has enabled her to make significant improvements within our communities over the past few years and has well-positioned her for meeting this new challenge with insight, compassion, and a fresh set of eyes.”
We are very excited to spotlight Kathleen’s early thoughts for the future of Memory Care at Living Branches, as well as a deeper peek into Kathleen herself, to help paint a clear picture of the possibilities that lie ahead.
DEFINING DEMENTIA AND ITS CURRENT CHALLENGES
With her strong background in project management, Kathleen recognizes that she will need a solid sense of the lay of the land – both within the Living Branches communities and in the world at large – so that she can better understand the challenges she faces. She knows that dementia might be a hard topic, but it’s clearly an important one. About one in three people will develop a form of dementia, and as baby boomers age, this number is likely to increase.
Even defining dementia can be challenging, because it’s not a disease in itself but rather, an umbrella term for different diseases with similar symptoms, including memory loss and confusion. Alzheimer’s disease is by far the most common, but there more than 200 other diagnoses.
There is still much we don’t know about dementia. It can affect anyone regardless of background, education, or income, and the medical world is still uncovering new facts about how lifestyle and genetics can contribute to the onset of dementia. While there are medications that can slow the process, there is currently no known cure or “magic pill.” to complicate matters further, there is no consensus on the effectiveness of certain preventative measures that individuals can take to minimize risk factors – although Kathleen and many other experts are quick to point out that you can’t go wrong with making healthy life choices.
Kathleen is also quick to mention that one of the biggest challenges in dealing with dementia is the stigma that still clings to it – despite its widespread presence in our world.
“This particular challenge really hits home for me, because my parents went for four years without telling anyone about my mom’s condition – including my brothers and me. They needed time to accept the harsh reality due to a lifelong fear that my mom had of losing her memory and they were ashamed of what people would think,” said Kathleen. “While I would give anything to get back the opportunity to support them from day one, I take much comfort in knowing that the work we’re doing at Living Branches will bring people together on this important topic – which is the best way to begin to erase the stigma. Our desire is to open doors to new resources and programming for dementia patients and their loved ones.”
MAKING CONNECTIONS WITHIN OUR COMMUNITY
Living Branches has three Memory Care areas (Park View at Souderton Mennonite Homes and Harmony House and Country Cottage at Dock Woods) – so clearly, there is rich soil to till within our own walls in terms of cultivating and sharing the great practices that are currently in place.
Kathleen hasn’t been shy about connecting with the broad range of caregivers at Living Branches to learn more about the current activities – small and large – that have been implemented to enhance the lives of Memory Care residents.
“Park View is teaching residents French, for example, because studies have shown that learning a second language can help delay the progression of dementia,” said Kathleen. “Plus, participants are having fun and connecting with each other in a new way, which also adds to the success and value of brain-boosting activities like these.”
Kathleen’s investigative work has uncovered many ideas for programming that can be transferred across Living Branches – as well as spawned ideas for new initiatives, such as a well-received musical therapy program, a project that is particularly close to Kathleen’s heart.
“We’re also working together to identify opportunities to extend our dementia awareness activities to residents outside of our Memory Care areas – and to the members of our surrounding communities,” said Kathleen. “There’s a common misconception that dementia is a natural part of aging, but this simply isn’t true. The earlier you can recognize the symptoms, the quicker you can seek help and find the support you need to maintain your quality of life.”
EXPANDING PARTNERSHIPS, EXPANDING POSSIBILITIES
“If I were going to have critical surgery, you can be certain that I would gather information not only from my own doctor, but also from the best experts in the field,” said Kathleen. “The world of medicine and health is always evolving, and this is particularly true for Memory Care, as researchers are uncovering new information every day – so networking plays a critical role in being informed.”
As individuals, the Living Branches staff and caregivers cannot possibly stay current on all the latest research and trends, as their time is consumed with hands-on care, for which we are truly grateful. Kathleen is more than happy to take the lead in bridging this gap by connecting with universities, health organizations, and nonprofits around the world to capture learnings that can be put to use in a very real and impactful way within the Living Branches communities.
Kathleen has already sparked some interesting conversations with a range of experts – particularly surrounding preventative care. Blood flow is a hot topic, because there’s a consensus that lifestyle choices that contribute to enhanced blood flow, including exercise and healthy eating, are good for the brain’s long-term health as well.
Other preventative measures, such as brain-teasing activities and memory games, split the experts – as some say that they can help improve mental health, while others don’t feel they contribute greatly to reducing the onset of dementia.
“My stance on this is ‘why not?’” said Kathleen. “It doesn’t hurt, and it’s easy to make those activities fun and social. So, while the jury is still out on this one, we’ll continue to find creative new ways to keep our minds as well as our bodies and souls, challenged, exercised, and fed.”
While much of Kathleen’s early efforts will be focused on building a network of contacts with experts around the world while simultaneously opening lines of communication right here in our own community, she knows that this dialog must be ongoing, so that Living Branches can remain flexible, inventive, and impactful in enhancing the lives of residents.
“Just imagine the benefits of a global Memory Care network that allows us to quickly learn about the most cutting edge studies, which may offer ideas for tactics that we can implement in the here and now,” said Kathleen. “We’re very open to new ideas – and the best way to find them is by working together – both within our walls and outside them.”
A GLOBAL VIEW, A PERSONAL IMPACT
Even though Kathleen is clearly thinking about the big picture, she never forgets that at the end of the day, the real meaning in what she does is found in the individual impact for all those dealing with dementia – and for their caregivers and loved ones.
“When living with dementia, every bit of support helps. Having a robust set of resources to draw from combined with a proactive community of support is a huge personal victory, because it really does take a village,” said Kathleen. She can still easily recall the moment when a Living Branches caregiver gave her one of the best pieces of advice she ever received about how to be there for her mother through her illness.
“I was struggling with how to interact with my mom, because she seemed so different in so many ways,” said Kathleen. “My mom’s caregiver said, ‘She’s still your mom. Don’t over think this and try to be her caregiver. She needs you to just be her daughter. None of us can do that for her.’”
Kathleen has never forgotten this advice, and after that, she sought creative new ways to connect with her mom – whether it was sharing a burnt hotdog (just the way her mom ordered it!) and orange soda lunch in the Woods Café, a well-timed joke, a new song on her mom’s beloved iPod, or a much-needed hug at the end of the day.
“Being open about our evolving relationship expanded the possibilities in other areas of my life as well – and gave me the courage, the freedom, and the strength to accept this new challenge with an open heart and an open mind,” said Kathleen.
“My dear mom was definitely the kindest, sweetest person I knew, and she modeled courage and strength for me, even when facing some of life’s most difficult challenges. Our mother daughter bond was strong and I will miss her greatly. I have been blessed in so many ways and feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the path that lies ahead and the opportunity to help lead the way toward bringing together people and ideas that will help those dealing with dementia lead fuller and happier lives. Though my mom is no longer here to benefit from these efforts, I know she is smiling on me from above and approves of it all.”
While preparing this article for publication, Kathleen’s mother, Sumako A. Kaneda, passed away peacefully on November 3, 2016. She was 90 years and 16 days old, and a smiling Dock Terrace resident to her final minutes.