Day program offers seniors a home away from home
It's 11 am on a Friday, and there's a fierce volleyball competition going on at the Tisbury Senior Center. Charlie's got a mean spike, but Beryl's ready for a return every time.
Watching the fun the group of 14 seniors is having, it's easy to forget their volleyball is a balloon and they are seated in chairs. With Beach Boys music thumping in the background, all that's missing from the scene is the sand.
That activity represents just one of many that took place recently on a typical day at the Supportive Day Program (SDP) run by the Martha's Vineyard Center for Living (MVC4L).
The day's schedule also included a coffee and social hour, current events, bingo, and chair exercises. As a special treat after lunch, 13-year-old Nathaniel Horwitz of Tisbury played his harp for the group, which included his grandmother, Gloria Brooks.
"Many people from the community, including local students, give their time to share their talents with our group, ranging from music to exercise and yoga, dancing, creative drama, travel journals, writing, and more," MVC4L director Leslie Clapp said afterwards.
In-between all of their activities, participants gave the day program high marks. Terry Beach of Edgartown said she has enjoyed coming to the program for several years. Jean Gatting of Windsor, Conn., who joined the group more recently while living with family in Edgartown, said playing bingo is her favorite.
"I've met a lot of people and enjoyed the company," said Helen Blasi of Oak Bluffs, a participant since 2001. "I'm very interested in the program and very happy with it."
In addition to an activity-packed schedule, the day program fills many needs. Some of the elderly participants live with family members who need help with care giving, while others live independently but need a place to escape isolation and enjoy some socializing.
"We help families take care of their children and elders and everybody," Ms. Clapp said. "The program has a real impact on more than this small group of elders. It affects the greater community, and the way we take care of each other, and the way we take care of whole families."
What's in a day?
The weekly program operates from 9 am to 3 pm on Mondays and Wednesdays at the Anchors Senior Center in Edgartown and on Tuesdays and Fridays at the Tisbury Senior Center.
It costs $40 per day for a full day and $30 for a half-day. The half-day program starts at 11:30 am, so that everyone can eat lunch together.
Some clients pay privately, while those with low incomes or who are eligible for certain services may pay a reduced price or attend free.
The price for both full and half days includes lunch and snacks, activities, supplies, and transportation. Clients are picked up at their door and dropped off through a contract with the Vineyard Transit Authority.
Ms. Clapp said the Councils on Aging and Island community agencies refer some of the day program clients, while others find out about the program themselves or are brought by their families.
"Sometimes people call because they're looking for this kind of service and don't know it exists here, especially people who are just here for the summer," Ms. Clapp said.
The census does go up in the summer. With the addition of several new clients recently, the program now serves about 32 people, and averages around 16 a day.
"On any given day, because of the facilities we're in, we can't have more than 21," Ms. Clapp said. "For staffing, we like to keep the staff to client ratio about 1 to 4. Everybody has something that we have to pay attention to, whether they're diabetic, unsteady on their feet, or have dementia."
The staff makes individualized plans for every client according to his or her needs and how the program is going to meet those needs.
Although about half of the day program's participants have Alzheimer's or dementia, Ms. Clapp said it is a strictly a social model and not a medical one. "There are medical programs out there that are much more regulated and costly," she said. "We don't have a nurse on staff and can't dispense medications. We have to draw the line when folks can't be kept safely in the building or are unable to take care of their own personal needs."
Nonetheless, Ms. Clapp added, "I really believe that the program slows the progression of lots of diseases, both physical and mental. It really helps keep many conditions at bay, when people are active as much as they can be, mentally and physically, and when there is somebody paying attention and keeping an eye out for little signs that something might be wrong."
The staff receives ongoing training through conferences and seminars on working with people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
"We communicate all the time with our clients' families, and as a result, things get picked up on very quickly so that a doctor may catch something early and alleviate problems later," Ms. Clapp said. "We call people and are in touch with them to let them know about resources, particularly in regard to Alzheimer's and dementia."
A labor of love
The staff includes supervisor Eileen Murphy and activities director Wendy Benedetto, who work full-time, and Rosie Roberts, Francine James, and Kim Carlos, who work part-time. Several substitutes work as needed.
Occasionally Ms. Carlos's daughters, Sabrina, 12, and Gabby, 10, lend a helping hand. "We don't have grandparent connections on the Island, so it's a bonus for them and the clients, who light up when they see the girls," she said.
The staff demonstrates affection and thoughtfulness for the elders in their care in many ways. When a client said she wanted fireworks on her 100th birthday in January, they bought sparkler candles for her cake. Knowing one client lives alone and has a tendency to miss her bus, they make sure they give her a wake-up call every day.
"The staff is great," said Arlene Conroy, whose husband Charlie attends the program. "They are so considerate of the different needs people have, and they just seem to genuinely like and enjoy the people who come to the senior center."
"All of the staff members are the most caring people on a caring Island," said Walter Frey, whose wife Beryl is attending the day program while they spend the summer in their Oak Bluffs home. Mr. Frey said he is trying to find a similar program for her when they go home to Newton this fall.
Although appreciative of the accolades, Ms. Clapp and the staff insist they get more than they give. "There aren't too many places where you go to work every day like ours, where our folks hug us and tell us they love us and that we're beautiful and wonderful," she said. "It's so gratifying."
A home of their own
Ms. Clapp has been the director of MVC4L, formerly the Island Councils on Aging, for 12 years and directly involved with the Supportive Day Program for three years. The private, non-profit organization works with Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands and other local service agencies to maintain and develop programs for seniors on Martha's Vineyard.
MVC4L's board of directors includes appointed representatives from the Edgartown, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Up-Island town councils on aging. The six Island towns contribute funds to the MVC4L through their councils on aging, based on the population of residents over 60.
Other funding comes through a variety of sources, including grants and other funds from federal, state, county and/or local government.
A big goal for the MVC4L board is finding the day program a new home. Although the senior centers in Tisbury and Edgartown have been generous in allowing use of their space, Ms. Clapp said it is hard on the clients and the staff to switch back and forth between the two places.
"The more people understand what we do and the real value this program has, the sooner we can reach out to people who might be able to help us," Ms. Clapp said. "Everybody's headed in that direction in life. Everybody's going to age and have parents they may need to take of."
Many Islanders volunteer at the day program, and several local businesses have been very generous in providing craft supplies and refreshments, Ms. Benedetto said. She welcomes anyone who would like to share their talent or lead an activity with the seniors.
For more information about the Supportive Day Program or to volunteer, call 508-939-9440 or 508-627-0207.