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Specialized memory facilities growing because of Alzheimer's, other types of dementia

The expansion of memory-care beds began 10 to 15 years ago, as baby boomers got older and the number of people with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia rose significantly, according to the Alzheimer's Association's New York City chapter.

Carolyn Ciarelli, left, and her mother, Helen M.

Carolyn Ciarelli, left, and her mother, Helen M. Smith, look through a photo album in Helen's room at the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack on Thursday. Photo Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

When Lorraine Biondo was in her late 70s, she began forgetting birthdays and often couldn’t find the salt and pepper shakers and other common objects around her home, daughter Kathy Jablonski recalled.

Her doctor gave her a cognitive test and told Jablonski that Biondo had early onset dementia.

Biondo’s memory deteriorated further, so when Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack opened a “memory care” wing in 2016, with staff specially trained to care for residents with dementia, Biondo, now 92, moved in, said Jablonski, of Great Neck.

“They are so patient and kind,” Jablonski said of the employees. “They know my mother better than I know my mother now, to be honest. They know what she wants. They know what she likes. She’s very comfortable there.”

The 60-bed memory-care wing in Gurwin’s nursing home is part of a growth across Long Island and nationwide of residences and specialized wings for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Gurwin also has 14 memory-care beds in its assisted-living building.

The number of beds in assisted-living residences in Nassau and Suffolk counties for people with dementia rose 39 percent between 2014 and 2016, to 651, according to the state Department of Health. Statewide, the number of beds in assisted-living residences for people with dementia rose 12-fold between 2009 and 2016, to more than 3,200, according to the state Department of Health. Many more memory care beds are in nursing homes. The state doesn’t have a separate count for memory-care beds in nursing homes.

The expansion in memory-care beds began 10 to 15 years ago, as baby boomers got older and the number of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia rose significantly, said Chelsea-Lyn Rudder, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association’s New York City chapter.

Today, there are an estimated 5.8 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, including 400,000 New Yorkers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

All 14 Long Island locations of The Bristal Assisted Living have units for residents with dementia, and the percentage of residential suites in each development dedicated to memory care has been rising since the first location opened in 2000, said Steven Krieger, a partner in The Engel Burman Group, the Garden City-based company that runs The Bristal. In 2017, it opened an 88-unit memory-care-only residence in Lake Success.  

“It’s a reflection of the demand,” he said.

Regency Assisted Living in Glen Cove is finishing an extension that will house the residence’s first 22 memory-care rooms, to add to the existing 99-room building, administrator Beth Evans said.

That will allow people living at The Regency whose memory or other mental functions decline “to age in place,” she said. “They’ll have familiarity,” which is especially important to people with memory loss, Evans said.

People with dementia always have lived in assisted-living residences and nursing homes, and many remain in nonspecialized facilities. Nearly half of all U.S. residents in nursing homes have dementia, according to 2016 data from the federal government’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Many others with dementia remain at home. The Westbury-based Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation has programs aimed at allowing people who want to live independently to do so, but for safety and health reasons, an assisted-care residence or nursing home may be more appropriate, and a memory-care wing is better than living in a non-specialized area, said Tori Cohen, the group’s executive director.

“They need specialized care in every part of their everyday living,” she said. “They need to be monitored more. And there needs to be a lot of [staff] training with this disease.”

In Gurwin’s nursing home, the memory-care wing is locked, to prevent the wandering that occurs among some people with dementia, said Stuart Almer, Gurwin’s president and CEO. There are programs tailored to people with memory loss, a calming room with low lighting and bubbling water and more staff members — all with special training — per resident than in the rest of the nursing home, he said.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of memory-care residents were in a common room listening to the 1962 song “It’s Mashed Potato Time” — with a few singing along with staff members — while eating mashed potatoes, in an early St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Carolyn Ciarelli, of St. James, was in the room of her 102-year-old mother, Helen M. Smith, playing Scrabble on her iPad. Smith has poor short-term memory, but still remembers how to spell and sometimes beats her daughter in Scrabble.

Smith lived independently until she was 93, when, because of dementia and physical frailness, she moved first to the assisted-living part of Gurwin and then to the nursing home.

Smith had a walker, but she fell repeatedly, because she would forget how difficult it was for her to walk on her own, Ciarelli said.

“My mother lost judgment on what she could or couldn’t do,” she said.

In 2017, she moved into the memory-care wing. Ciarelli likes the extra staffing in the wing and the special programs. But some residents of the memory-care wing cannot hold full conversations, so Ciarelli sometimes takes her to other parts of the nursing home “so she can interact with people who are more engaged.”

Jablonski said she too sometimes takes her mother to other parts of the nursing home, for concerts, comedy acts and other events. Biondo enjoys it at first, but after awhile she gets nervous because she doesn’t recognize most of the people.

“She says, ‘I want to go home,' ” Jablonski said. “Home means as soon as I get her down there, because that’s her comfort zone.”

By the numbers

  • The number of beds in assisted-living residences in Nassau and Suffolk counties for people with dementia rose 39 percent between 2014 and 2016, to 651, according to the state Department of Health.
  • Statewide, the number of memory-care beds in assisted-living facilities soared from 242 in 2009 to 3,224 in 2016, according to the state Department of Health.
  • Nationwide, the number of deaths from dementia increased 212 percent between 2000 and 2017, to 261,914, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
  • There are an estimated 5.8 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, and 400,000 New Yorkers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
  • Nearly half of all U.S. nursing home residents have dementia, according to 2016 data from the federal government’s National Center for Health Statistics.

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