As is the case with a casino, there’s no way to tell what time it is in this big room. The shades are drawn; the disco lights are spinning; the salsa band is blaring; and the crowd is going wild — or as wild as a group of about 30 Alzheimer’s patients can go, seeing that some are in wheelchairs.
But even a bunch of the seated ones are waving their arms or holding on to the recreational therapists’ hands, swinging them back and forth. And that’s just the first fun of the night at the ElderServe at Night program at The Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a stunning all-night outpatient care program.
The fact of the matter is: We are living longer, but we really haven’t figured out why yet. If it’s to enjoy a healthy old age and spend those years having a great time, of course longevity is a blessing.
Otherwise? I’m not convinced.
My mom has dementia and spends most of her time lying in bed at home, bewildered. She has full-time care, thanks to an amazingly lovely lady who gets her up each day. But she doesn’t have much else that makes any sense to her. Maybe it’s impossible at this stage. Or maybe we need more programs like the one at the Hebrew Home, a smart, sprawling complex in New York.
Its all-night program is the only one of its kind in the country, says Debbie Messina, director of business development there. The folks who attend it are typically cared for at home during the day by a spouse, aide or adult child. But at night, Alzheimer’s patients prove to be a bigger handful. “They can sleep just four hours, and that’s it; they’re good to go,” Messina says. Their caregivers are not.
Even worse: If the Alzheimer’s sufferer is able to sort of hold it together by day, night is a different story. “Sundowners” is the term used to describe how fear and agitation often visit the Alzheimer’s patient from dusk till dawn.
Science isn’t sure why nighttime has that effect, but about 15 years ago, the Hebrew Home came up with a remedy: Deny the night. It invites locals to send their loved ones via ambulette to this all-night party — from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., 365 nights a year.
“I live in Scarsdale with an Eastchester address,” says amiable Lucille Zorzo, one of the clients, when I ask where she’s from. She’s sitting at a long table with her fellow revelers, pretty in a plaid shirt and looking delighted to be there. The salsa band was great, but now everyone’s taking a graham cracker break. Afterward, there may be arts and crafts or a slide show. “I live in Scarsdale with an Eastchester address,” Zorzo says again — apropos of nothing — still smiling as much as a girl at a prom.
In the next room, patients who are a little less lively sit at tables with activities in front of them. There’s a box of sand with toys because sand brings back happy memories. There’s a nearby basin filled with soapy water and plastic cups.
On a good night, many of the guests will wash and dry the dishes, says occupational therapist Jean Tyson, because that’s one of the things they remember how to do. They feel competent again — which is one of the program’s goals: giving people back the sense of calm and happiness that comes from doing something they’re good at.
In the end — and I mean that literally — we all want to live out our days with joy if possible, but at the very least not miserable and confused. The Hebrew Home understands that. This program is funded by Medicaid, and it seems as if it could be copied around the country, to the relief of many caregivers, as well as those they love.
It’s time to wake up to all-night care.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self- Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the- Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”