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CARE FREE : Day Centers Give Families a Rest From Tending 'Fragile Elderly'

September 15, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Every weekday morning at 7:30, before Hans goes to work, he drops Kathie off at her day-care center in Orange.

He is exceedingly gentle with her, holding her hand, guiding her slowly from the car to the two-room facility on the grounds of St. Paul's Lutheran Church.

The activity room is already set up for the day. The red plastic leis and pictures of Hawaiian seascapes are up on the walls. The morning-snack trays are on the table, next to the large-print magazines, puzzle boxes and doll-making materials. The name tags for each of the 10 participants are arranged in a neat row.

Hans takes Kathie, always the first participant to arrive, to a cushioned chair near the television set. He leans over to hug his wife, who remains silent but smiles back. He kisses her, then leaves.

"It's hard at times to go. You know, like you were deserting her," says Hans, 61, who works as an information systems manager in Los Angeles.

"But you have to have time for yourself, some peace of mind, or it becomes too overwhelming. You can't be there every day, 24 hours a day. You won't last--I know."

He turns to catch a glimpse of Kathie watching "Good Morning, America" in the other room, while sipping orange juice and holding a napkin full of crackers on her lap. The sight makes him smile.

"This is a wonderful program for her," Hans says of his 62-year-old wife, whose speech is still severely impaired from a major stroke. "She's safe here and cared for. She feels productive and active. She meets a lot of good people here."

All the participants at this nonprofit community facility, the Orange Adult Day Care Center, are senior citizens living with their children, spouses or other family members.

"You shudder when you think of the alternatives in the other kinds of care out there, and the costs that can break you in two," says Hans.

"When you think of that, and the people who don't even know these kinds of elder day centers exist, we consider ourselves very lucky."

Kathie is hardly the traditional day-care participant.

Nor are the 11 other elderly participants who regularly attend the Orange Adult Day Care Center, which charges participants $22 a day and is one of 13 state-licensed day centers for the elderly in the county.

The ages of the Orange center participants go as high as the mid-80s. Most use walkers; some use wheelchairs. Nearly all suffer from physical and mental degeneration, some from early stages of Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease.

All fall under a category that is gaining more nationwide attention: the "fragile elderly" who are still living with their families.

Although they are too infirm to be left alone, such elderly are still capable of taking part in mildly active, closely supervised group activities.

And their physical and mental conditions haven't declined to the point where they require far costlier, more conventional means of care.

This might be confinement at home under the care of nursing aides, whose fees start at $10 an hour. Or a board-and-care home, which generally costs at least $1,000 a month. Or a nursing home, where round-the-clock care can run well over $2,000 a month.

"The premise (of these centers) is to try and keep the fragile elderly out of institutions as long as we can," says Marilyn Ditty, executive director of San Clemente Seniors Inc., which operates the Adult Day Health Center of South Orange County.

At the same time, backers say, these centers give families a crucial respite of six to nine hours each weekday.

"These centers help take the tension off the family care-givers," says Rosalea Wilcox, director of the Orange Adult Day Care Center. "It helps keep these families intact, to maintain the natural bondships from being destroyed."

To most families in these programs, the adult day-care centers are indeed a saving grace--no matter how temporary.

Until three years ago, all seemed reasonably well for Betty Fogg.

At 81, she was slowing down, of course. Severe arthritis. Minor strokes. Other ailments of advancing age.

Still, she was able to take care of herself, living alone in a Fullerton apartment, visiting her grandchildren and friends whenever she wanted, and taking an occasional job as companion for elderly invalids.

But in 1985, after being hospitalized for a major gallbladder operation, her decline became alarmingly swifter.

"They told us Mother would be bedridden and completely helpless," remembers her 52-year-old daughter, Marilyn Curtis. Her mother, it seemed, would need round-the-clock care the remainder of her life.

The family ruled out what it dreaded the most--placement in a nursing home.

"I had seen my mother-in-law die in one rest home (five years earlier)," says Curtis, citing her own "horror story." "It had such a coldness about it. To me, it was demeaning--a place where people were just waiting to die."

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