The center is owned by National Medical Enterprises, a major health care services provider based in Santa Monica, and managed by the Hillhaven Corp. of Tacoma, Wash., which operates 300 nursing homes nationwide.
Ferri Kidane, executive director of the center, said her aim is to tailor care to the needs of the individual. "Basically we have no rules," she said. "The rule is what works best for the patient."
The job of the care-givers at the center, she said, is to provide the patients encouragement "to help them feel good about what they can do."
To reduce anxiety that could stem from fear of the future, the center's patients are segregated according to the severity of their illness.
A key to caring for the patients is patience on the part of the staff. Proper treatment is a time-consuming endeavor that becomes more demanding as patients lose abilities and become disoriented and confined to wheelchairs.
Mealtime is a challenge, said Kidane. Patients in the early stages of the illness are able to feed themselves. But they must be served one course at a time so they don't have to select among several items on a tray.
In later stages of the disease, Kidane said, patients have to be spoon-fed and coached to chew and swallow.
Showering can be terrifying for some who forget from day to day the feel of water hitting their faces. "Some patients take five nurses to shower them," Kidane said.
All this attention is costly. For its services, the center charges the families of its 135 residents $4,000 a month. Kidane said the center cannot afford to accept Alzheimer's patients on Medi-Cal, the state's medical insurance for the indigent, which pays an average rate of $70 a day.
In instances where residents can no longer afford the $4,000 fee, a center spokeswoman said, families are obliged to transfer them to less costly facilities. She added that the center's social services department will assist them in choosing the best alternative within each patient's financial means.
Stephen L. Read, the center's medical director, said some residents, with consent of their relatives have participated in drug trials that are seeking a treatment for the disease. Although no federally approved treatment is yet available, he said, other medications, such as anti-depressants, can reduce some of the symptoms.
While public awareness of the seriousness of Alzheimer's has increased, Read said, it still must gain more attention so that sufferers can receive proper care and aren't allowed to drive cars or have control of bank accounts or be preyed upon by swindlers or wander off and get lost.
"I think people are more aware and come in for evaluation sooner," Read said. "Sometimes, people now call themselves to say something is wrong with their memory."
In response to requests, two years ago the French Center established a community clinic to diagnose Alzheimer's. More recently the center added a case management service to help families choose the most appropriate care for afflicted relatives.
Besides the French Center, options include day-care centers and board and care facilities that help Alzheimer's patients with the tasks of daily life or skilled nursing assistance provided in institutions or at home.
To help families pay for the care of Alzheimer's patients, the French Center a year ago founded a nonprofit organization that so far has raised and distributed more than $60,000.
"Many (Alzheimer's patients) are still cared for at home by loving care-givers, many of whom are pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion," Kidane said. To help these people, the center has added a day-care program and short-term boarding so family members can get a respite from their demanding routines.
Bob Flannes, 72, of Laguna Beach recalled "the nightmare" of managing three shifts of nurses aides when he was trying to care for his wife, Barbara.
"It was kind of like running a small hospital at home. Sometimes the aides wouldn't show up or would show up late and they were not always aware if she needed medical attention."
Four and a half years ago, Flannes brought Barbara, now 69, to the French Center. Despite the relief of knowing she is well cared for, watching her health deteriorate has been difficult, Flannes said.
Just a few years ago, he said, he would celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries with her. But now there is no point to it, he said, because she doesn't know what is going on.
Then about eight months ago she stopped recognizing him. "It was a shock at first. All of a sudden there was no more communication," he said.
To cope with all this, Flannes said he joined a family support group that the French Center sponsors where he can share his grief with others who will understand.
"In the beginning you figure there must be a cure for this. You keep hoping," he said. "But eventually you come to the realization there isn't any."