‘A home away from home:’ Adult day care center offers socialization and activities for seniors, respite for caregivers

Bob Tulwits pets Skylar, a golden retriever who hangs out at the center.
Bob Tulwits pets Skylar, a golden retriever who hangs out at the center. CDT photos

Days at the Senior Daily Living Center in State College start out similar to an ideal Sunday morning: with coffee, a newspaper and a little conversation among seniors who are early to gather for adult day services at the center, where a lackadaisical golden retriever greets everyone at the door and a cat waits for a comfortable lap.

As spouses and grown children bring seniors to the center — around 10 a.m. — the chatter grows and the action begins.

On any given weekday, families of up to 15 or so seniors take advantage of the services, which offer caregivers respite and seniors a chance to socialize and improve their mental and physical health, said Heidi Cornwall, center manager. The center, open weekdays until 5:30 p.m., has been available to families for 20 years, she said, but there still are caregivers who are unaware that adult day services are an option. Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries operates the center, as well as others: one in Altoona, Blair County, and two others, in Somerset and Meyersdale, Somerset County.

“We are trying to raise the profile of the center,” Cornwall said. “It’s great for adult children or for spouses of seniors who want to be able to leave the house without worrying. This gives peace of mind.”

The seniors who attend can chat with others their age, get some exercise with morning stretches and activities and enjoy games, such as bowling or balloon volleyball. Organizers also work to engage the seniors daily with trivia and other memory supportive activities — listening to current events, “Dear Abby” or horoscopes from a newspaper.

The Centre County Office of Aging plans a menu of balanced meals for the center’s lunches, designed to be hearty enough to be a main meal, Cornwall said.

“That gives caregivers a break, too,” she said. “They can plan a light dinner and know that their loved one has enjoyed a nutritious and filling lunch.”

A nurse is on staff to provide education and administer medicine, Cornwall said.

“She has talked to seniors who have upcoming heart surgery,” she said. “She really helps them, makes them feel at ease and talks about any concerns they have.”

Aside from bookshelves of board games, the centers also are equipped with technology to help stimulate and strengthen mental muscle, said Andrea Schurr, Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries’ community and public relations director.

Dakim Brain Fitness software, which she said is proven to help increase cognitive functioning, is one tool organizers employ. The software scores users in each area of the brain and adjusts to provide an appropriate balance of challenge and entertainment. Seniors who seem to be intimidated to use technology are paired with others who feel more confident.

“We believe it’s never too late,” she said. “The seniors enjoy it — the music, clips from old movies, puzzles and math problems. It’s engaging.”

Hiring in-home care is another option for some of the families, but that leaves out the social aspect of the centers, Schurr said. It also can create a problem if a caregiver has to call off work.

“This is a nice option for caregivers who want to keep (seniors) home longer,” she said. “With home care, the senior only has one person to talk to. Here, they can be with people (caregivers) trust during the day. And it’s like a family here, a home away from home. They are not at home, sitting and watching TV through the day.”

It’s an option plenty of caregivers choose. According to the National Center for Health Statistics’ 2013 overview of long-term care services in the U.S., 4,800 adult day services centers provided long-term care services in 2012, and each day of that year there were 273,200 participants enrolled in adult day services centers. There still were twice as many seniors on a daily basis in nursing homes, compared to day services, the study said.

Adult day services centers have grown markedly since the first centers opened around the 1960s, according to the National Adult Day Services Association. Depending on regional demographics, the association claims demand will increase beyond the estimated more than 5,000 already operating in the U.S.

Families express their thanks — and say they see a change in their loved ones’ moods and even physical and mental abilities. Seniors often come home more relaxed, too, Cornwall said.

“We have a wife who talks about what a huge help it is,” Cornwall said. “She can get out, go to a doctor’s appointment or run errands without having to worry about her husband needing her. For adult children, they can go to work without worrying — especially for those who are not ready for an assisted living home. We try to do everything we can to make their lives easier.”

After working as an activities assistant for about a year, Amy Homan said she can see the changes in seniors who join the center on a daily and long-term basis. Homan is often the one who reads horoscopes and other items aloud and encourages the seniors to talk about them. She knows when an activity has sparked interest.

“I can tell by their laughter,” she said. “It’s in how they communicate.”

One of their favorites is “noodle ball,” where seniors sit in a circle and use halved swimming noodles to whack a balloon to another player. Having pets around adds an element of coziness and interest, Homan said. Skylar, a 10-year-old golden retriever, often benefits from the seniors’ affection during lunch.

“Being here is so important for them socially,” Homan said. “Whether they realize it or not, their minds are being expanded. We do everything we can to keep them active. It’s like a family here, every day.”

Full of laughter — and cracking jokes at her friends — 93-year-old Edna Schultz spoke highly of the center. She has been attending for almost two years.

“I love coming here,” she said, swiping a purple polka-dotted balloon to her neighbor. “I hope I’ll come another 10 years. That’s if they’ll have me.”

Schultz splits her time between her two sons’ homes — one in New Holland and the other in State College. She said she is thankful that her sons do not want to place her in a nursing home. She feels like she is just where she belongs, she said.

“I always try to look on the positive side,” she said. “I’ve been that way all my life. My sons don’t want me in a nursing home, and I don’t want that, either.”

Her favorite part?

The food, she said, with a twinkle in her eyes. Then, she gave her real answer.

“It’s the camaraderie, the friends we have all made,” she said. “I didn’t know any of them when I came. They are all my good friends now.”