“I Bow To You”: Human Touch and Aging

Five older adult women sit in recliners covered with blankets. They wear soft booties on their feet while harp music plays quietly. A TV monitor gently rotates photos of flowers, while the walls feature beach décor graphics – deck chairs, fishing gear, plants and beach grass. The room’s artificial lights are off. Natural light suffuses the room. The aromatic scent of orange permeates the air.

A staff member slowly works her way from resident to resident, brushing hair, massaging hands with cold cream, and feeding the elderly women small bites of yogurt. Hydrating liquids are always at hand.

It’s a Namaste Care room, and it’s a peaceful sanctuary: quiet, tender and loving.

And it may be the future of dementia care.

Located in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, Vista Cove Senior Living is one of a small but growing number of California facilities adopting Namaste Care, which re-introduces the power of healing touch into long-term care sites for patients with dementia – typically those in hospice in the last six months of their lives.

Between five and 10 residents visit a Namaste Care room for at least two hours each in the morning and afternoon.

While activities that engage older adults with dementia are slowly taking hold in long-term care facilities – art, music, exercise, even aromatherapy – one area of the human experience remains woefully underrepresented.

Human touch.

Research shows that babies who aren’t held eventually die – they “fail to thrive.”

And Joyce Simard knows the same holds true for aging adults.

A long-time social worker and dementia specialist, Simard launched Namaste Care a decade ago to ensure older adults who couldn’t participate in activities were still offered a respectful and beautiful way to belong.

Simard puts it more dramatically: “How do we help people with dementia really live?”

Although new to California and the United States, Namaste Care – “namaste” is Hindi for “I bow to the god within you” – has been embraced in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and other countries.

“They’re so much more aware of palliative care  in the U.K.,” says Simard.

The greatest fear of aging adults isn’t contracting cancer: instead, it’s the slow descent into cognitive decline and dementia. Aging adults know it’s often the beginning of limited physical activity, social isolation and – perhaps worst of all – loss of physical affection.

Larry Lollman has been married to wife Myrna for 55 years, and visits her at Vista Cove almost every day. On a recent Saturday, Myrna was surprisingly angry and frustrated, warning her husband to stay away. (Patients with dementia often suffer bouts of anxiety and depression.)

While not a hospice patient, residents like Myrna receive extra care within the Namaste Care program when needed.

“I came in on Wednesday and she was back to her regular self,” says Lollman. “I’ve seen other people with the same results. It seems to even them out – return them to their former selves.”

“When you’re one-on-one with someone, you’re connecting with them,” adds Brenda Jenkins, activity director at Vista Cove. “Even if they can’t say anything, their eyes are speaking.”

The number of dementia residents in both assisted living and skilled nursing facilities is rising dramatically as America ages – and with it the need for compassionate care that is an alternative to a sedentary existence.

The key lesson for frenetic staff members trying to dress, toilet and care for too many residents is a simple one: savor the moment. Indeed, the biggest training challenge for Simard is encouraging attendants to slow down.

And while she insists on the purity of the program as compassionate care rather than a marketing opportunity – that’s precisely where her program is headed.

“It’s been very dramatic in improving our occupancy because it differentiates us in the marketplace,” says Floyd Rhoades, CEO of Vista Cove, which adopted the Namaste Care program a year ago. “Nobody else is doing it, and I don’t know why.”

After years of contact with national powerhouse Atria Senior Living, Simard finally secured Atria’s support this spring, when she trained staff at its Escondido facility.

The provider of Namaste Care for the Escondido site is the San Diego-based Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, which is now offering Namaste Care throughout its national network – also as a way of differentiating itself from competitors.

The program offers “meaningful sensory activities that stimulate the senses, promote relaxation, and offer comfort and serenity to those living with dementia,” says Patricia Smith Putzbach, executive director of Seasons.

Nationally, dementia care specialist Arden Courts has more than 50 facilities. While none are located in California, the majority have adopted Namaste Care.

Facilities report a wide variety of health benefits from the program, including fewer hospitalizations and lower psychotropic drug use for conditions like anxiety and depression. Reductions in ailments like urinary tract infections or COPD have also been reported. Even hands constricted with polio have opened with massage.

“People who haven’t spoken for a couple of years will respond,” adds Pat Kaplan, a program consultant at Vista Cove. “The families have really been seeing the benefits.”

Namaste Care has other benefits. Family members typically visit longer. Staff turnover is reduced. One executive who spends 15 minutes in his own Namaste Care room calls it “the best 15 minutes of my day.”

Namaste Care has been such a rousing success, Simard says its potential extends far beyond hospice patients with dementia to include all residents with dementia – perhaps eventually to all residents in long-term care.

Once, after massaging a woman Simard had been told was “completely non-verbal,” Simard recalls the elderly woman looking up at her kindly.

“She took my hand and began to kiss it,” says Simard. “And she said ‘This is so good it should be in the newspaper.’”

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