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The Guest House celebrates 30 years serving elderly
Nonprofit helps those with diseases affecting memory
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Janice Roderick and Barry Falt listen as Cleve Edwards, center, talks about the “warmers” he got for Christmas. The three were participating in group activities at The Guest House in Gainesville on Wednesday morning. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Sitting in a circle, 10 patients at The Guest House play a guessing game.

“It’s big,” says Judy Ricketson, activities director. “It’s in the kitchen. You plug it in.”

Their brows furrow with frustration. A man in his 70s kneads at the material of his jacket. An elderly woman’s mouth hangs open, eyes searching the ceiling tiles. All have that familiar look that says “it’s right on the tip of my tongue.” One person calls out guesses. A microwave? An oven?

“You store your food in it,” Ricketson continues. “It’s cold.”

Someone says “refrigerator” and a collective sigh resounds, accompanied by smiles and a few laughs. The game is part of a morning routine at The Guest House in Gainesville that aims to jar memories for patients, to nudge parts of the mind gone dormant through no fault of their own. For those with dementia and Alzheimer’s — the primary clientele of the nonprofit elderly daytime care facility —  it’s not an easy task.

The Guest House recently celebrated its 30th year providing medical care, food and activities for seniors in Gainesville afflicted with the types of diseases that affect memory loss. Currently serving about 40 area seniors who stay at the facility from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the week, The Guest House was chartered in 1985, and ever since there have been countless instances of what Director Dana Chapman calls “connections made.”

“For every person, every single day, there is a moment of connection,” Chapman said. “They might say a number or think of a word they couldn’t before. They have moments when they really connect and feel successful, and when you see those moments happen, it’s very rewarding.”

Ricketson said helping them remember is what makes the job fun.

“It’s awesome,” Ricketson said. “They’ll surprise you. Something will suddenly click with them. But, in order for that to happen, you’ve got to help them feel comfortable. You have to let them know you understand and always offer positive reinforcement. Never make them feel embarrassed that they can’t remember something.”

One of the biggest factors for success, she added, is providing structure.

That’s why nursing staff at The Guest House keeps a large dry-erase board with an hourly schedule in plain view for all patients throughout the day.

A typical timeline for the first half of the day looks like this:

  • 9 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 10 a.m.: Morning routine
  • 11 a.m.: Music
  • Noon: Lunch

During morning routine, as Ricketson concluded the guessing game, one patient asked, “Ms. Judy, what’s next?”

Ricketson gestured toward the dry-erase board.

“We’re going to do our exercises, which is part of morning routine.”

The patient nodded, seemingly satisfied. Members of the group then picked up 1-pound dumbbells the color of Pepto-Bismol and, still seated, hefted them up and down to the croaking croons of Louis Armstrong from nearby speakers.

Everybody seems to look a little happier than they had moments ago. The exercises, like the rest of the daily program, are meant to give the brain a little workout.

Patient Margie Whitmire said she enjoys the exercises, but also playing bingo, as well as participating in arts and crafts.

“I like it here. Just getting to talk with the people here is nice. It’s good talking to someone other than my little dog (at home),” she said, laughing.

Ricketson said for all patients, Whitmire included, it “just feels good for them to be able to communicate and have a little fun outside of their homes. You just have to help them feel comfortable and talk to them, and sometimes they’ll remember something and their whole faces will light up.”

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