“You are not alone.” For a caregiver of a loved one with dementia – or for someone struggling with dementia themselves – this is a powerful message to hear.
This is exactly the message that Kathleen Roberts received when she heard Gloria Donnelly, who was then the Dean of the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions, speak at a senior healthcare seminar in 2016. Kathleen is currently the director of dementia care strategy at Living Branches, but at the time of the conference, Kathleen was only in the early stages of stepping into this new role. She was also serving as a caregiver for her mother, who was living with dementia at Dock Woods, one of the Living Branches communities.
This memorable encounter not only supported Kathleen in her personal life, but also kindled a new partnership between Living Branches and Drexel University that has gained exciting momentum over the past two years.
“I will never forget Gloria’s speech because she shared very personal stories about her life as a caregiver for both a parent and a parent-in-law with dementia,” said Kathleen. “She offered insight, humor, and most importantly, a sense that I wasn’t alone. Dementia can be extremely isolating – for both the individual and the caregiver – and her openness touched me deeply. After the seminar, I just had to introduce myself to her.”
Kathleen also introduced Donna to Living Branches and talked about what she wanted to accomplish in her new role – which included seeking partnerships with outside organizations (like Drexel!) who are committed to discovering new possibilities and innovations in the world of dementia care.
Later that year, Kathleen and Donna came back together on Drexel’s campus. The meeting included a number of Drexel professors and faculty, as well as a range of Living Branches representatives. By then, Donna had announced her retirement, and the meeting allowed Kathleen and her team to meet Laura Gitlan, Donna’s successor – who had previously served as the founding director of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Center for Innovative Care in Aging.
“Everyone at the table brought an open mind regarding the possibilities of a partnership between Drexel and Living Branches – as well as a united belief that dementia care requires the same level of scientific exploration as other conditions related to aging,” said Kathleen. “We immediately realized the win-win of an ongoing collaboration; Drexel brought the scientific expertise, and Living Branches could offer a real-world setting to test out new ideas.”
The first challenge the team tackled together was a study on caregiver burnout, which confirmed some important hypotheses about the experience of dementia patient caregivers – and led to new initiatives at Living Branches. (Read more about this study here.) A second study is already underway, this time focusing on the positive impact of various forms of exercise on dementia.
“One of the most exciting aspects of our partnership with Drexel is our access to student interns,” said Kathleen. “Many have never explored dementia care, and it’s exciting for us to see them get excited about the career possibilities in this field. It’s fulfilling to play a role in building that crucial next generation of caregivers.”
For Kathleen, the last two years of forging a new dementia care strategy at Living Branches have been a whirlwind of exciting progress – and she credits many of those achievements to the partnership with Drexel.
“From the very beginning, our friends at Drexel have taught us that we are not alone in our quest to transform how we think about – and deliver – dementia care,” said Kathleen. “By working together, there is much we can do to improve the wellbeing of those living with dementia and their caregivers – and to let them know that they are also not alone in the challenges they face.”
“This is definitely an exciting, forward-thinking time in dementia care,” added Kathleen, “and we are committed to playing an active role in this growing conversation – to enhance care possibilities within our community and well beyond.”