United Active Living’s approach to dementia care has earned the endorsement of two dementia experts. Dr. Allen Power and Daniella Greenwood were in Calgary last week to work directly with staff at United’s Garrison Green and Fish Creek communities. They were also panelists at the public event, Dementia Re-Imagined: Continuing the Conversation, which was sponsored by the United Active Living Foundation, and presented in partnership with Dementia Network Calgary and Alzheimer Society Calgary.
“United is a trailblazer, going against the grain of the safe and easy way. This is a path that most people have not embarked on yet,” said Dr. Power, an international educator on transformational models of care for older adults, particularly those living with changing cognitive abilities. “I’ve always encouraged people to think about creating inclusive communities and not segregating people based on a diagnosis. What I love is finding a community like United. Because I’m always writing about this, I love visiting communities that offer this now.”
“I think United is courageous,” said Daniella Greenwood, a consultant, speaker, author and activist who is a proponent of inclusive communities in Canada and Australia. “You are going against a system that is focused on disease, disability and categorizing people. It’s easier not to be inclusive. Creating such a practice shows others that it can be done. It’s also about doing the right thing. United is at the forefront of innovation. I love the openness in the design and how everyone is encouraged to be creative. For that to be part of life here is so special.”
United’s Garrison Green was built in 2008 near Mount Royal University. It took a groundbreaking approach to living with dementia. Unlike other older adult communities that segregate residents based on their cognitive or physical abilities, United chooses not to. Residents with dementia live on the same floors as everyone else, they eat in the same spaces and attend the same programs. Importantly, couples stay together even if they have differing needs.
United’s philosophy supports inclusive environments that value people living with dementia and helps them reach their full potential.
“In our United Minds program, we focus on who the person is and build a relationship with them,” said Amy McDonough, United Minds manager. “We focus on including people with dementia in our community. There is more to someone than their diagnosis. The person with dementia isn’t lost; they are still there. Our job as caregivers is to find out who they are. It’s a relationship-centred approach. We truly get to know them, what’s important to them. We don’t separate couples should one of them have dementia. We keep them together. So many changes happen to a couple’s relationship so we support them both.”
In 2010, Dr. Power wrote in his first book – Dementia Beyond Drugs: Changing the Culture of Care – about the importance of creating inclusive communities. He followed that in 2014, with Dementia Beyond Disease: Enhancing Well-Being.
“There are more voices of advocates living with dementia demanding to be able to live where they choose. They are saying, ‘We don’t want to be in a place where only people defined by their disease are living. We want to be included as much as possible in society,’ said Dr. Power. “If you say you won’t exclude people based on their race, religion or ethnicity, why would you do it based on a medical diagnosis? It takes courage to actually put this into practise.”
Fish Creek residents Conrad and Dorothy Irving came to United three years ago, after Dorothy had been diagnosed with dementia two years prior. “We looked at three or four places so we could live together. But others wanted to separate us. That was upsetting to me. We decided United was the best place for both of us. The staff here have formed a family bond with us. I would adopt them if I could! It’s a community. Two or three other residents have made friends with Dorothy, and I know I can go out and residents and staff are watching out for her. I know as a caregiver I have to look after myself. I’m comfortable knowing she is in good hands.”
Al Power and Daniella Greenwood spent time discussing their research and how it connects to United’s philosophy with the resident councils in each community. They were excited by what they heard. “The thing that stood out for me was how concerned residents are about each person’s welfare. They wanted to know how they could support people with dementia better,” said Daniella. “This is about community. Now they are looking at having a spokesperson on the council who can speak for those who don’t have a voice. I was blown away by what United has in place. Some skills are trainable, attitude isn’t one of them. It’s the desire to connect, not just the skills to connect.”
“I was pleased with the people – the attitude and passion,” added Dr. Power. “There is a lot of flexibility in the systems – the meals, the processes. Often places are regimented. It was so nice to come here. I was looking for common operational barriers, but they weren’t there. The resident councils are engaged in creating community. No one is marginalized. You get the diversity of opinion that creates strength and resiliency in an organization.”
“There’s always a risk in being a frontrunner,” said Greenwood. “Over 10 years ago, United took a risk. Everyone is welcome to live here. They won’t lock you away. There are no guidebooks, they just did it and the sky didn’t fall. Al and I sat in a meeting where they are trying to do more to build on their successes.”
“There’s always a risk of something going wrong, but it can be made better,” said Dr. Power. “You can always think of reasons not to do it. Blame the regulations, the costs and the difficulty in integrating those with different levels of ability or cognition, but United said we are not waiting for others to prove this is the right thing to do, we are just doing it. You should never ask what the risk is of doing something without also asking what the risk is of not doing it.”
In Dr. Power’s view, the increasing number of baby boomers will one day look for the services of an older adult community, some of them will experience dementia. “With the growing numbers, I believe the answer is going to be inclusion. It’s going to be impossible to lock everyone away in separate housing. Inclusion is the only sustainable solution.”
Dr. Power is working on a new book about inclusion, and the experiences of communities who have successfully implemented it, along with co-author Dr. Jennifer Carson. He will be capturing many of United’s experiences as he researches the book.
Photos and video by Sherana Productions
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To learn more about life at United’s Garrison Green, watch this short video.