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Fading memories


Joshua D. Trujillo
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Former student assistant Patti Harada visits Al Boyd, 81, at the Indian House Gardens assisted living center. Many past students have continued their relationship with their elderly partners.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 1, 1999

Shannon McLean, on-site manager of Indian House Gardens, recalled an upsetting but common morning at a residence for seniors. An elderly woman was awoken by a staff member to prepare for breakfast. The woman complained of fatigue and said she wanted to go back to bed. Moments later, the elderly woman returned furious because, according to her memory, she had not been awoken for breakfast.

This is only one example of the many stories the staff at the residence hold tucked in their memories. The elderly woman in McLean's story suffered from dementia, a form of Alzheimer's disease.

But for the past three years, a University of Arizona psychologist and students have been trying to improve the lives of the elderly.

Sharon Arkin, a licensed UA clinical psychologist, is the founder of the Elder Rehab Research Project, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging in the university's Department of Seeing and Hearing.

The project brings the UA students to the Indian House Gardens, 5940 E. Fifth St., to aid the elderly residents.

"People are relieved to have this place to go to," Arkin said. "Otherwise, they will go out of their wits."

Often, family members of Alzheimer's sufferers have trouble dealing with constantly needed reminders, and university students offer help to such families.

In an effort to maintain physical stimulus and mental awareness among elderly patients with dementia or other disabilities, the department has established and maintained an off-campus site to reduce the likelihood of fading memory.

The program allows 14 independent study students and student volunteers to individually assist 14 Alzheimer patients. Each student cares for one patient in need of assistance.

Arkin said the program takes a non-traditional approach to treating the disease.

"This is not a drug rehabilitation," Arkin said. "Students work with patients who are more likely to have Alzheimer's disease and try to increase or maintain their memory without drug rehabilitation."

In a greater sense, the program helps the patients feel welcome in society and reassure them they can be useful, despite their illness.

"Student involvement helps to break down the nervousness that one does have a clinical illness," said Nidhi Mahendra, a fourth-year graduate student. "The students give back what they can and this improves the mood of the elders because they enjoy going out and participating in the community."

Each student meets with an elder at Indian House Gardens for social events and at the University Medical Center for fitness.

During the weekly social meetings, students help stimulate the patients' language and memory with exercises, one of which involves a discussion on the art of Norman Rockwell.

"The seniors enjoy the students' energy, new ideas, and funky clothing - all of that excites and invigorates people," said Paula Keyes, owner of Indian House Gardens. "The students help them to keep having fun."

Aside from the upbeat appearance and energetic aura of the students, the project provides musical performances and social gatherings for the patients to attend with their student aide. A music series at the Desert Lutheran Church, 5360 E. Pima St., is held in honor of Al Boyd, a former participant of the program who played the guitar when he was younger.

Boyd can no longer participate with the students because his condition has worsened.

Regardless of what happens to patients in Arkin's program, she and the students remain hopeful that their efforts are helping.

"The elders are touched by the belief that people are giving them the opportunity to do things instead of being turned away," Mahendra said. "It makes them feel useful and they feel wanted because they can still do things."

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