The Washington Post
For seniors, a beacon in a bleak year
D.C. day health facility, the first of its kind east of the river, offers support and friendship
Half a dozen people made their way down the hall. They walked gingerly, one grasping an aide’s arm, one using a cane, one in a wheelchair. But their eyes crinkled into smiles above their surgical masks, and their voices joined in unison:
Here we go, loop-di-loop
Here we go, loop-di-la
Here we go, loop-di-loop
On a Thursday morning!
“Doing the Loop” — walking together around the circular hall — is a daily ritual for participants at Iona’s Washington Home Center in Congress Heights. The adult day health facility for people with memory issues or other disabilities, the first of its kind east of the Anacostia River, opened in October.
For Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents in particular, the opening was a beacon during a bleak pandemic year that left seniors and their caregivers more isolated than
“There was nothing here,” said Thomye Cave, the facility’s director. Though there are wellness centers in the area for older people to engage in exercise and arts classes, they are not set up for people who develop dementia or have certain physical disabilities.
“When their dementia progressed, there was nowhere for them to go,” said Sally White, executive director of Iona Senior Services, which offers programs and services for older adults and family caregivers in and around the District. The new facility joins Iona’s other adult day health location in Tenleytown, which has operated since the 1980s.
“These folks were isolated and at home and alone,” she said, adding that the chair of the city’s Commission on Aging, Guleford Bobo, said he “was literally seeing people standing on street corners.”
Previously, some people from Southeast D.C. would travel to the Tenleytown location to spend the day socializing and taking classes. But for those living east of the river, that often entailed an hourlong journey each way across the city, and family caregivers did not always have the time or means to convey their relatives there, Bobo said. “Most of the time was spent getting them to the facilities and back.”
White said Iona did not build a center east of the river until now because “we didn’t have the resources before.” She credits the local and federal government with helping to change that. “The city is supporting it more. The Department of Aging and Community Living and Medicaid are supporting senior services in the community more than they did a couple of decades ago,” she said.
Planning for the new site was underway before the coronavirus hit. The 9,100-square-foot space was repurposed with activity spaces, a cafeteria with socially distanced tables for eating, an art studio, an exercise room with mirrors and a ballet barre, a gleaming kitchen and a solarium. The walls are decorated with art by local artists, and the facility has a small vehicle for staff to pick up participants and plans to add a bus.
Along with exercise and art classes, bingo and trivia games, and meals, the facility offers nursing and social work support. It also provides a place for participants to make friends and have a social life, and allows caregivers much-needed downtime, Cave said.
“It gives the caregiver peace of mind that they’re in a safe space and they’re stimulated,” she said. “They can go wherever they need to go and know that they don’t have to worry about whether, leaving mom or dad at home, whether they’ll get out and go missing.”
The center runs weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., a full day that helps participants expend energy, she said. “By the time they get home, they’re in a space where they just want to rest, and that helps the caregiver as well.”
The location is key, she said. “Here’s a place where for too long folks have been neglected. It’s also a place where folks can feel proud, that ‘ This is in our own community.’ ”
Lauren Stephenson, manager of development and communications, added, “It’s very meaningful to have staff that look like you, to have artwork that looks familiar.” Much of the music playing in the cafeteria is Motown “because that’s the music they grew up on. It’s not uncommon for there to be a spontaneous dance party.”
The shutdown during the pandemic hit people with dementia hard, Cave said. “Isolation can do so much in terms of the deterioration,” she said. “And for caregivers, it was a really challenging time.”
Still, getting the word out has been slow, which administrators attribute to the pandemic. The facility has room for up to 100 participants, or 50 per day, and currently 34 are using it. Nearly all are people of color, and almost half live in Ward 7 or Ward 8.
Once the pandemic is more under control, the facility plans to organize activities with nearby schools. Two physical therapists with an office next door donate their time. Last week, they were on-site leading participants in exercises using long, yellow stretching bands.
The new center cost $3 million to develop, which Iona raised privately. Funding to cover the cost for participants came from a grant from the city’s Department of Aging and Community Living, Iona philanthropy and Medicaid. (The Tenleytown location also gets funding from private payers and Veterans Affairs.) Participants are not charged.
In an art class last week, participants drew pictures using the image of a road. “The road is a way to think about travel,” said Merry Urbia, the art therapist leading the session. “Where are you from? Where do you like to go to?”
John Oliver, 83, of Ward 8, colored his road blue and used a stencil to add a deer to it.
“He’s from Virginia, growing up in the country,” said Keith Jones, a program specialist sitting beside him. “So it brings all his imagination back. He’s smiling, thinking about all the things he remembers from the country.”
Oliver nodded. “Oh heck yeah, we had a 250-acre farm,” he said. He chose another stencil to draw a car on his road. “I did have a blue and cream car, an Oldsmobile,” Oliver said. “Two tone, cream and blue, four door.”
“You went the speed limit, right?” Jones asked.
“No,” said Oliver.
After a lunch of ziti, beef, carrots, spinach and rolls, John Lee Jr., 71, and Barbara Baylor, 77, sat together outside in the facility’s small courtyard. The two became friends after joining the facility in March, finding common ground in their love for music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and trading tips about oldies radio stations.
Before coming, “I was watching TV, I was on Zoom a lot,” said Lee, a retired mail clerk who lives alone in Ward 8. “People in my building seem like they just close the door and let the door stay shut,” he said, adding, “This allows me to socialize, be active.”
Baylor, a retired administrative assistant and D.C. native who lives in Ward 7, broke into a smile. “Oh, I love it,” she said. “It gives me something to look forward to, and the fellowship is very nice.”
Baylor’s husband and daughter died in the past year and a half, and she has struggled with depression. Her eyes tearing up, she said Cave has been a rock for her.
“She just warmed me. She talked about some of the things that she had gone through,” said Baylor, who comes twice a week and has encouraged her sister and a cousin to join. “I’m getting better every day that I get out.”
She is also discovering new aspects of herself. “I really didn’t have any art ability, but I think I’m getting some,” she said. “It helps the mind. It even helps my soul. Yes, it does. Yes, it does.”