What did I do with my car keys? I can’t quite remember.

Many of us think these thoughts in the frantic moments before leaving our homes. Many would say this is a normal phenomenon, but what if your memory or that of someone close to you seems a little worse? The Virginia Tech Engagement Center for Creative Aging can help.

The Virginia Tech Engagement Center for Creative Aging is a new name and an expanded vision for Adult Day Services, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Dec. 14. In addition to its day program that serves families navigating dementia-related issues, the center is now growing two more community out reach programs: Engaging Aging and Caregiver Wellnesss.

“Adult Day Services is just one of three programs that we’re going to be offering now,” said Ila Schepisi, the center’s director. “That’s the expanded vision and why we have a new name. We are working to provide programming to people at the start of the journey with dementia all the way through to the adult day services, and we want to help more than just the participants in Adult Day Services. We want to expand in programming for the caregivers as well.”

The center’s evolution began in 2012, when Schepisi became the director. As she learned the challenges and barriers people face with dementia, she looked at the program’s data and began tracking trends in the industry. She noticed people waited until memory issues overwhelmed them before getting help.

“We recognized we needed to reach people sooner, so that’s why we developed Memory Masterclass,” she said.

Memory Masterclass is a six-week course for people over 55 who want to maximize their brain health. Participants will engage in a variety of activities that will help them apply strategies in their daily lives to strengthen their brain’s reserve as they age.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the center closed for 16 months. In considering a reopening plan, Schepisi realized she needed to rethink and diversify the center's programing to better support the community as well as maintain its viability.

She and Joanna Culligan, the center’s therapeutic program manager, looked at the strategic plan. Similar organizations were doing virtual online programing, but for adult day services, Schepisi said the evidence does not show this is a good way to engage with that audience. 

Instead, they developed a new program — the Care Partner Bridge.

“We wanted to use our time wisely in a way that was really going to support people,” she said, “so we developed a program called the Care Partner Bridge, and we offered that and Zoom online sessions for educating caregivers. But we know to make the center thrive, we’ve got to do something different. There’s so much new evidence and research coming out about dementia care and Alzheimer’s disease that we need to utilize our expertise and our knowledge to build a program that is going to innovate and lead in the next 30 years.”

For example, for the Care Partner Bridge program, caregivers and their loved ones or care partners come in for a two-hour session with four to five other care partnerships. For the group, the programing might include reminiscing, music, exercise, or art activities based on the group dynamics. For the second hour, the caregivers work with one staff member and their partners go with another. This is to offer peer support and peer programming.

Schepisi said the goals for the program are fourfold. The first two are to model communication and engagement techniques, the third is to provide peer connection, and the fourth is to provide a smooth transition into Adult Day Services if and when its needed. With communication, the center helps caregivers understand the importance of words, tonality, and expression. Engagement includes offering programs that can be replicated at home to  help reduce boredom and isolation for those in the initial stages of dementia.

“We’re also connecting the caregivers with their peers,” she said, “because when you become a caregiving unit or someone with dementia’s caregiver, the social networks you built your whole life start to decline. And you need that support and those social networks at the end of the journey, and there’s no way to replace them. And the program helps them meet other care partnerships, so that they can rely on each other and provide support for each other. Maybe their social network stays even as they progress.”

With the last goal, it is a smoother transition into Adult Day Services because the partnership allows both partners to become comfortable with the people and the space,

“If we have caregivers and their loved ones who have dementia coming to this Care Partner Bridge program, then they’re interacting with the same staff who work for Adult Day Services,” she said. “They’re also in our space and they’re familiar with the type of programming we do. When it’s time for them to transition to the Adult Day Services program, they’re not just being dropped off with a bunch of strangers in a strange place for who knows how long. They’re being dropped off in a familiar place with familiar faces, and they have a sense that they’re going to engage in some familiar programming. We’re hoping this decreases the anxiety that we typically see in people when they first begin.”

Adult Day Services provides in-person daytime care to assist families who need help with taking care of an older adult who lives in their home. The center uses an approach that respects and values each participant and promotes physical, social, emotional, mental, and cognitive health.

In December 2021, the Virginia Tech Commission on Outreach and International Affairs, along with the provost’s office, approved the Virginia Tech Engagement Center for Creative Aging name change. The Adult Day Services Program operates three days a week, allowing time for Memory Masterclasses and the Caregiver Bridge program on the other two.

“Since the pandemic, reopening Adult Day Services slowly is allowing us to start and grow all three programs at the same time,” Schepisi said.

Those working at the center “believe a world where living joyfully and connected in the presence of dementia is possible,” according to their vision statement. Their mission is to “provide innovative community services for families aging in place while enhancing the education of future healthcare professionals.”

Written by Leslie King