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Ventura County

Fun May Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

Health: Adult day care centers such as Among Friends provide exercise and other activities, helping seniors stay out of institutions.


Phil Birdsell cleared his throat, flicked on the music machine and began to croon.

The snowy-haired men and women scattered around the tables gently swayed to his rendition of "New York, New York." Moments later, the women shuffled to the dance floor with the men in slow pursuit.

In a back room, a stroke victim struggled to stack children's blocks and regain control of her body. And in a corner, an elderly Egyptian with a thin mustache and white baseball cap smiled dreamily before dozing off over his Arabic newspaper.

It was another day at Among Friends, Ventura County's first licensed adult day care health center--a place of occasional frivolities, intense medical supervision and many small triumphs that help keep the elderly out of nursing homes, one day at a time.

The brightly lit downtown Oxnard facility, which opened in March, radiates energy. Opera, jazz and show tunes reverberate through the air, and local entertainers such as Birdsell are frequent visitors.

"I dance here because if I don't, they will come and get me," 85-year-old Felipe Montibag of Port Hueneme said with a chuckle.

Along with exercise and activities, clients receive physical and occupational therapy, counseling and medical treatment.

Not a Way Station to a Nursing Home

Mark Kovalik, owner of the center, has clients who are blind, diabetic, or suffering from strokes, heart ailments or the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"Our program is to prolong the period before they go to a nursing home, but it doesn't have to be a way station for a nursing home," said Kovalik, who noted that some clients, seemingly headed for institutional care, turn around after attending the program.

Every client must be recommended to the facility by a doctor. There are two registered nurses, a physical and occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a dietitian, a social worker and a medical director.

"These facilities are here to fill a niche for families who want to keep their loved ones home but want to send them off during the day for medical care and social activities," said Barb Felke, resolution coordinator of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program of Ventura County, which provides advice on facilities for the elderly and monitors treatment. "The push is to keep them at home for as long as possible."

Two other licensed adult day care health facilities are opening soon, one in Ventura and one in Oxnard, she said.

There are other kinds of adult day care centers in the county, but most serve mostly as places to socialize and do not offer medical treatment or accept Medi-Cal. "With our population aging, I expect we'll see more of these places," Felke said of the health facilities for the elderly.

A Diverse Group of Clients

Los Angeles County has about 60 adult day care centers, many oriented toward specific ethnic groups such as Russians, Koreans and Chinese, said Kovalik, who is originally from Odessa, Ukraine.

Among Friends is a diverse place; the majority of its 60 clients are Filipino and Latino. But there also are whites, blacks, Chinese, an Egyptian and an 89-year-old Dutchman.

Medi-Cal pays for most participants at a cost of about $67 per person, per day.

"When you are old, you need something like this," said 87-year-old Emilia Volpe of Oxnard. "If this wasn't here I would make the best of things at home."

Moises Sanchez, a social worker at Among Friends, said many clients suffer from loneliness and depression.

"I have a woman whose husband died in 1965 and she still grieves," Sanchez said. "She can't cope with his birthday or their anniversary. Many of these people rely on this place as their primary social connection. For many it has been a 180-degree turn."

Simply being at the center instead of alone at home allows for more medical monitoring and earlier diagnosis of illness and disease, Kovalik said. Clients must agree to stay four hours each day with round-trip transportation provided. Breakfast and lunch also are served.

Getting Out, Meeting People

Ruth Davis of Oxnard was the first client.

"My doctor recommended coming here," said Davis, 68. "I thought anything was good if it got me out of the house. Before this I was doing nothing but sitting at home with the television. I'm a people person. That's one thing Among Friends has done--help me meet people."

Detailed case files are kept on all the clients, listing medications they need and conditions that must be monitored. Nurses take routine blood samples of diabetic patients and do blood-pressure checks on others. A physician serves as medical director.

"The frail elderly can function as a result of this program and can stay in their homes longer," said Laura Snyder, an occupational therapist at the center. "Sometimes it is a respite for the families."

Snyder was working recently with 73-year-old Mary Ziegler of Ventura, who suffered a stroke two years ago that left her paralyzed on one side. Her face was pinched in concentration as she slowly stacked 2-inch blocks while Snyder quietly rooted her on. Each movement was a small victory, edging her closer to the life she once had.

"My kids cried when I first raised my finger," she said during a break. "They never thought I'd move again."

Music, Conversation and Friendships

Meanwhile, the tireless Birdsell, in peach shirt and tight black pants, worked the main room, serenading tables of blushing women with "Unchained Melody."

Kaye Baker sauntered past. The 64-year-old, who is almost completely blind, often plays piano for the other residents and likes to call herself a "tough-minded optimist."

"I don't ever get lonely," she said. "This place is called Among Friends and it has lived up to its name."

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