It is so important to imagine ourselves in the place of those we serve! Recently, Louisiana State University Social Work graduate student Catherine “Katie” Patin spent time as an intern at Charlie’s Place in Baton Rouge, LA, which is a program for individuals with early to mild stage Alzheimer’s and dementia-related disorders. Katie wrote the following article from the point of view of a Charlie’s Place participant:
Let me begin with telling you a little about myself. I recently celebrated my 69th birthday with my husband and four children. Although I do not remember much about my birthday celebration due to Alzheimer’s, the pictures of the day remind me I had a great time. My husband and I have recently relocated to Baton Rouge, LA to be closer to family. Now that we are settled, my husband thought I should spend two days a week at Charlie’s Place, an Alzheimer’s day center. I was a little apprehensive about attending a day center, but I trust my husband when he says this will help us both. I now want to share my first day at Charlie’s Place with you. While I retake this journey, I am confident you will get a sense of what it feels like to be a member of the Charlie’s Place family. Consider this your welcome mat into Charlie’s Place.
When my husband drives into the parking lot of Charlie’s Place, I am upset he wants to just drop me off and leave me at a place that looks like a doctor’s office with its red bricks and cars parked in the parking lot. At this time, I become nervous and angry. These feeling last until a smiling face, an employee comes to greet me at my car. This smiling face offers to assist me out of my car and ask if I would like to join in morning coffee with toast and cookies. I am a sucker for cookies. So, I give my husband a kiss goodbye and go with this smiling face. This smiling face then walks with me into the building. To my surprise the inside looks like a home with warm colored walls and the smell of cinnamon. The smiling face and I walk together through what appears to be a living room and then through another area that holds a circle of chairs and a computer screen. Once in the kitchen, I feel like I am in momma’s kitchen. There is another smiling face at the kitchen counter swaying to some music and making toast. When this smiling face sees me walk in she greets me and asks me if I want coffee or juice. I sit at one of the wooden kitchen tables and am pleasantly welcomed by other attendees. Everyone at the table is drinking cups of coffee and looking through magazines that are placed on the tables. I could not help but notice the vase of sunflowers that are in the center of the three tables. I reach out to touch the flowers and realize they are not real but they make me smile nonetheless. I love flowers and these remind me of picking wild flowers as a girl for my family. The smell of fresh toast begins to make me hungry. Just in time for that smiling face in the kitchen to come sit beside me at the table offering me a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. With music playing in the background it was nice to relax and enjoy a light breakfast.
After breakfast everyone in the kitchen begins to make their way towards the middle room. A smiling face walks with me to the room and helps me into a chair. I am told it is exercise time. Everyone was smiling and cracking jokes so I am not sure I heard correctly. I have never been one to enjoy exercising. So, seeing everyone happy and laughing about exercise is a surprise to me. Then I realize everyone is laughing because those smiling faces, that have been helping me since my arrival, are helping create a light mood by joking around. Interacting with other members and the smiling faces is a key aspect of everything we do during the day.
After participating in exercise games, the smiling faces ask everyone to move into the living room. With a carpeted open floor plan it is an easy transition into the living room. A smiling face helps me find a place to sit on the couch. The entire wall that connects the living room to the kitchen is made up of large windows. It is a sunny day and the light shining through is beautiful. There are large green trees, a small garden, and a fountain outside. I see several birds and squirrels perching on the fence. It is as if nature is inside with us. When a smiling face begins to talk, I direct my attention back to the living room. The living room has a theme of comfort like any other living room. There are two comfortable couches, a lounge chair, rocking chair, book shelves with books, and a coffee table. I also notice a grandfather clock that is similar to a wedding present I received. The living room also holds a shiny black piano. This is where one of the smiling faces sits. She says we are going to play music and turns around and starts playing the piano keys. The music fills up the entire room and it is so much fun to sing along. The smiling face plays familiar songs like “She Will Be Coming Around the Mountain.” After singing several folk songs, we begin to sing songs of praise and worship. These are songs that I have not heard in a long time. It is like I am in church as a small girl. Everyone is singing to the hymnals. Seeing everyone participating and enjoying this spiritual journey puts me at ease. I begin to think maybe my husband is right about this place.
I hear a hand bell signaling lunch is ready. I can smell the good food before entering the kitchen. When I walk in the kitchen the tables are set and soft lyrical music is playing on the radio. There are cloth place mats under ceramic plates, cloth napkins with forks and knifes, and stemmed goblets with ice and tea in them. I feel like a friend has invited me over for a dinner party. The food is already on the plates and when I want more food or drink a smiling face is there to offer more. These smiling faces work as a team to make everyone feel comfortable. You get a feeling these smiling faces love what they do and are fond of each other. When I am done eating I am ready to explore the garden.
I have wanted to be outside in the garden since my first view from the windows. Being a summer day I know it will be too hot to stay outside long. I am surprised when I walk out the door and feel coolness. The large green trees in the garden have created enough shade to cool off the area. The garden is the first thing I notice when I step out the door. Knee high brick walls bring the garden closer to you. In the garden are mint leaves, purple flowers, baby tomatoes, and yellow and orange flowers. I sit on the edge to get a closer look at the flowers and as I put my hands down beside my lap my hands rub over the most soothing stones. Upon appearance, the stones look like what the imagination creates the spine of a dragon to look like. What a difference feel makes. The stones are smooth to the touch and make me feel like I am sitting in a creek. I cannot help but continue to rub my hands over these stones as a smiling face sits on one of the many available benches across from me. This smiling face is a great listener, talking to me about anything I want to talk about. I am not pressured with many questions; instead I am left with nice small talk as I take in the sights and smells in the garden. I then walk over to the fountain. The fountain is not an extravagant fountain that draws your attention from the garden, but instead accentuates the soothing feeling the garden possesses. The fountain resembles a large planting pot. The falling water looks and sounds like rain. I sit on the edge of the fountain listening to the sound of the water and the birds chirping in the trees. The garden is an unexpected piece of nature in the middle of the city. I know there are other activities going on inside but a smiling face sits and talks with me until I am ready to join the others.
When deciding to join the others as they are playing games. I sit in my favorite chair, a rocking chair. The chair is comfortable and there is the light music of Billie Holiday playing. As people begin to move around the room I hear the music change to artist of the 50s. I can tell other people are enjoying the music because some are singing, clapping, or dancing. I look down to tie my shoe in the rocking chair when I notice a basket of yarn and knitting tools. There is no reason to be idle here with all the games, the computer activities, books, personal company, and my new discovery of knitting. I surprise myself that I feel at ease, almost like I have been spending my time at home. I grab a shawl that is hanging on the back of the rocking chair as I get chilly and listen to the music. I make myself comfortable and help answer the questions of Family Feud as I end my Day at Charlie’s Place.
A smiling face comes to tell me my husband is here to pick me up. This smiling face and I walk to the car together. I am told thank you for coming spend the day at Charlie’s Place. As I am assisted into my car a “hope to see you soon, farewell” is expressed. My husband asks me how my day was and I cannot sum into words the feeling of ease I have had all day. I could explain to him how it had all the comforts of home and how I was treated like a friend, with care and courtesy. Upon reflection, feeling at home appears to be really important to everyone in Charlie’s Place. There was no sense of hierarchy associated with anyone I encountered through my day. The employees, the smiling faces, and members were considerate and understanding.
My husband tells me he feels comfortable with me attending Charlie’s Place. My husband knows I have a tendency to become confused and wander off, but he does not worry about that at Charlie’s Place. Charlie’s Place has taken into account how Alzheimer’s alters my personality and has camouflaged the doors in the facility to reduce my tendency to wander. Charlie’s Place takes pride in its attention to detail to make everyone feel like they are welcome.
Attending Charlie’s Place is a unique experience. Leaving the comfort of my husband is scary at first, but my experiences at Charlie’s Place have shown me home is about a feeling not about four walls.