Dementia is a harrowing journey for those experiencing it and for the loved ones witnessing its heartbreaking impact. But Berkeley Oaks, a new memory care community in Williamsburg, hopes to make tackling this difficult aspect of life a little easier.
"Our job really is to keep them healthy and engaged socially, intellectually, spiritually and physically," Berkeley Oaks regional vice president Ann Bowe said.
The facility opened in April and consists of 16 apartments throughout three cottages. It features a secure courtyard where residents can walk around and garden.
"It's been going really, really well," she said. "This is what we want to become their home."
The facility touts its Valeo wellness philosophy as a major attraction. The word means "to thrive" in Latin, and the emphasis is on engaging residents. One way they do this is their "create and compose" program, which explores arts such as music and painting.
"People unleash talents they didn't even know they had or used to have," Bowe said.
Bowe's mother battled Alzheimer's, and she said painting was one of the activities her mother enjoyed during that time.
Staff are teaming up with residents to paint a wall mural inside one of the cottages in an effort to make their new home feel special. The imagery is based on a photograph of a Colonial Williamsburg tulip garden, a reminder of days spent strolling through the intersection of past and present.
"It helps them renew," Bowe said. "We want to support their strength and independence, create purpose and honor their legacy."
Create and compose
Colleen Koziara traveled from Chicago to lead three days of painting sessions. She attended the windy city's American Academy for Art and has worked with seniors for two decades.
"Murals have an incredible effect on seniors with dementia because they can travel into them," Koziara said.
She spoke of a sister community in Berlin, Maryland, where they painted a mural and used an additive to make the sand feel real. Here in Williamsburg, a gel medium mixed into paint gives some of the flowers a three-dimensional feeling.
She helped residents and staff with brush techniques, and a Sharpie marker outline helped guide their brushstrokes. The sea of greens, purples and reds helped make the wall feel alive.
"The residents get involved," she said. "It helps everybody that works here feel like they're getting involved."
The entire process is meant to be relaxing and calming for everyone. And if a resident doesn't feel like painting at the moment, they can choose to do something else.
Past and present
Resident Richard Compisi used to enjoy playing baseball, and a picture of him in his old uniform hangs on the wall by the entrance to his apartment. He wasn't interested in the mural at first, instead opting to walk and eventually jog after some warming up.
After some encouragement, and with the help of "Stand by Me" playing in the background, Compisi helped paint some flowers.
"There's something that triggers their memory," Koziara said. "What you're looking to do is inspire happiness."
The entire staff, from managers to the dining team, is trained to work with residents, to be accountable and build trust.
"The foundation of everything is who the residents are and what's important to them," said Lorie Dancy, vice president of clinical services.
Staff assess applicants and offer multiple levels of care based on the progress of the disease. They also meet with family members to gather information.
Bowe said families have been impressed by the offerings, appreciating the cozy environment and the sole focus on memory care.
"There's been a lot of loss," Dancy said. "This is an opportunity for joy."
Don Anderson moved in Thursday. His wife, Barbara, was there helping him adjust to his new environment, and she helped paint the mural. So far, she's been pleased with Berkeley Oaks, and not only because it's close to her home.
"It has this philosophy of how they're going to work with people with dementia that I like very much," Barbara Anderson said. "They've been cheerful. They've smiled. They make me feel comfortable. I'm going to know that my husband is in good hands."
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.
Some apartments are still available. Call 645-3320 for more information.
Wellness Wednesdays feature local experts on the third Wednesday of every month at 3:30 p.m. The next one on June 21 covers the Valeo philosophy. Free and open to the public.
Berkeley Oaks is located at 1807 Jamestown Road.