New Rochelle Dementia-Care Facility Is County First

The average lifespan in America is at an all-time high—79 years according to The World Bank—and with it, “There is an uptick of people suffering from dementia,” notes Rita Mabli, President and CEO of United Hebrew in New Rochelle, which has just officially opened the doors to Willow Gardens, Westchester County’s first nonprofit residential facility dedicated specifically to those suffering from memory impairments, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The increased need for dementia care brought on by the uptick in longevity means more facilities in our area—and throughout the country—will need to be equipped to handle and care for those suffering from related setbacks. At the June 16 grand opening, which was attended by nearly 100 people, including New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and members of United Hebrew’s Board of Directors, Mabli noted that she is “unsure if anyone else can” offer the same extensive care as Willow Gardens. “We can do this because we stand alone,” she explained.

While the two-story building on Pelham Avenue did previously house elderly residents as the Saul and Ada Gutner Pavilion, it has received a dramatic facelift to further cater towards those living with dementia. All aspects of Willow Gardens, from structural design to decoration, were selected with its future residents in mind. With dementia, residents cannot always simply tell a member of the staff what their favorite hobbies are. For this reason, Willow Gardens will put extensive emphasis on helping residents reminisce, such as with the photographs and posters. For example, the dining hall features high-definition photography prints of food in order to evoke sensory memory, while other walls are decorated with movie posters that residents may recognize, such as The Sound of Music and Casablanca. Hallways are wide and easy to navigate, and a courtyard is located in the back. A tranquility room was designed for those residents seeking time alone. Even small touches, such as pillows that say “Home,” are all geared towards creating a welcoming environment.  

One of the facility’s main goals is to uphold individuality. “There is no cookie-cutter approach to healthcare,” said Grace Ferri, Vice President of Development and Marketing, who was on hand at the aforementioned ceremony. “We need to understand who that person was and see what resonates with them, then bring those likings to the surface.”

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While short-term memory usually deteriorates first with Alzheimer’s, long-term memory stays intact for a period of time until the disease progresses. For this reason, sensory input is a beneficial way to help the residents maintain their identity and feel more comfortable in their surroundings. This approach contributes to a “non-pharmaceutical redirection,” Ms. Ferri explained. Instead of merely administering pills, Willow Gardens’ trained staff will work with residents to find alternate ways of easing residents’ frustrations. Medical amenities, of course, are also an important part of maximizing residents’ quality of life, so Willow Gardens aims to pair these methods together to create a “full, comprehensive continuum of care,” Ms. Ferri noted. To help accommodate the varying levels of dementia, residents with mild to moderate symptoms will live on the first floor, while those with more severe impairment will live on the second floor.   

At the grand opening, Mabli shared her personal account of her mother’s time as a resident at the facility when it was known as the Saul and Ada Gutner and the role United Hebrew played in helping ease the pain of their situation. One day while in her mother’s room, Mabli said she made a promise to herself that, “Someday I would do whatever I could to renovate what I considered an aging building, and this is what we celebrate today…It’s now renovated, renewed, and restored to its original glory.”  

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