Innovative VA Program Provides Calm and Supportive Environment for Alzheimer’s Patients and Caregivers

By Annette M. Boyle

WILKES-BARRE, PA — For staff and residents, life in a dementia-care unit often becomes a dance of frustration. The constant struggle to interpret the world around them upsets patients; the inability to keep residents from “acting out” exhausts staff members.

Amie Dorney, certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, has developed special intervention rooms to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Amie Dorney, certified therapeutic-recreation specialist at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, has found a way to break the cycle. Thanks to a grant from the VA Employee Innovation Initiative, she’s developed a pilot program that combines intensive, ongoing staff training and special intervention rooms in an effort to replace staff anxiety with confidence and patient frustration with calm.

“For a modest amount of money — $150,000 — we have been able to pilot this promising program,” said Michael Cortright, VA innovations portfolio manager. “We need to be effective stewards of taxpayer funds, and this is an initiative we believe will offer significant benefits to many veterans.”

“It’s already difficult to place patients with dementia — and demand is growing,” noted Cortright. “Many medical centers do not have wards suitable for these patients. If this innovation program can reduce turnover by showing staff they can make a difference, it could stimulate many other medical centers to create dementia units.”

Increasing capacity for cognitively impaired veterans is important, because Wilkes-Barre is one of few specialty dementia units in the VA system, according to Cortright, noting that the state where he is located, South Carolina, has none. Even where dementia units do exist, space can be very limited. The dementia unit at Wilkes-Barre, for example, has only 22 of the105 beds at the Community Living Center (CLC).

With the aging of the baby-boomer population, the number of veterans needing long-term care in dementia units is expected to rise sharply. The Alzheimer’s Association says that a new case of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders (ADRD) is diagnosed every 69 seconds in the United States. Even as the number of patients with dementia has risen, understanding of the disease and the needs of those who have it has struggled to keep up.

Over the four years Dorney has worked at Wilkes-Barre, she said she has noticed that patients in the dementia unit exhibit certain patterns. “Some might categorize wandering, aggression, agitation and hoarding as negative behaviors, but they are normal for those with dementia. They aren’t acting out; it’s part of the disease progression,” she said. “Staff need to understand what dementia is and how to deal with patients who have it, so that we can give our veterans the best care possible for the time they are living with us.”

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