First, we hear a rooster crowing. Then Ron and I see a few goats and some chickens, nibbling happily in an outdoor enclosure. Their neighbors are a preening peacock and his mate, who’s proudly fanning her tail feathers. These animals are our initial introduction to Sierra Vista Retirement Community in Santa Fe, NM, a dementia care facility and an Eden Alternative Care Community.
Dr. Bill Thomas founded the Eden concept, and we were intrigued by his philosophy: no matter how old we are, life is about continuing to grow. Care is collaborative, a balance of giving and receiving. Together, care partner teams strive to enhance well-being by eliminating the three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. The Elder-centered community revolves around close and continuing contact with plants, animals, and children, believing these relationships provide young and old alike a life worth living.
Ruth Dennis, Social Services Director of Sierra Vista, welcomes us and shows us into the home. We are greeted by wooden floors, an upright piano, the sweet tweet of birdsong, and a smiling elder. Colorful artwork, created by the elders, crowns every hallway, adding a vibrancy and energy.
I try to imagine what it would have been like to visit my mom in such a home-like facility and I am so emotionally moved by the idea of being together in this comforting home that I burst into tears. Fortunately, Ruth understands and envelops me in a big hug.
Opening the Door and Opening the Heart
As we stroll through the spacious home, Ruth shows us the nursing office, which features a Dutch door, so elders can see what’s going on. The nurse, Shauna, welcomes their interest and occasional assistance.
The laundry room also has half-doors.
“Elders are welcome to get involved with folding clothes. They help with the house as often as possible” Ruth says.
The spacious open kitchen, with a friendly chef/ Care partner chopping yellow and red peppers, lets residents see and smell the food. All staff takes turns with cooking, and elders often help.
“Soon, it will be warm enough to start our vegetable and flower gardens,” Ruth says, leading us into a lovely courtyard. Residents can wander into the outdoor area whenever they wish. This becomes the summertime living room.
Towards the front of the building, in the living room, picture windows allow a grand view of the goats and chickens as well as the beautiful New Mexico Mountains. Elders can watch the animals’ antics and the change of seasons from the comfort of easy chairs and sofas.
Inviting Choices and Connections
Creativity and choice are key in this environment. Ruth describes a flow of interesting activities, telling us, “We offer options, so elders can gravitate towards the project that most interests them.”
Ron and I have spent a fair amount of time in memory care facilities and we have been very grateful for the care and community our beloved parents received there. But this Eden home has a different feel and look. Where are the shining linoleum floors, the stark white hallways, the cluster of slumbering elders in wheelchairs, the stark nursing station? Where is the cheerful game of Bingo and the large screen TV blaring The Price is Right? Elders here are given another set of alternatives that that is focused on the simple pleasures of life; beautiful art, loving pets, music and an opportunity to help others.
“We try to control the television; we don’t want TV to replace life” Ruth says, as we savor their big screen, which features the soothing movements of dolphins leaping through brilliant blue ocean water to the background of classical music.
“Our elders are encouraged to stay involved with life, to be connected with the pleasures and joys of living,” she says. “Life is embraced through having a constant connection to animal companions, art, music and loving relationships.”
For more about the Eden Alternative concepts and care facilities, please visit www.edenalt.org/about-the-eden-alternative/
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.