There’s an access code to the front door. No one gets lost, or just wanders off. Nor does there appear to be any reason to. The members all appear content, chit-chatting, watching old movies, and playing games together.
The living room flows into a spacious kitchen where staff—all with more than 10 years of longevity here—prepare snacks and gourmet lunches for a client base that often forgets who’s serving them and why.
In the adjacent game room, Arnita Strange, an Activity Counselor at Eisenhower Medical Center’s Five Star Club for 24 years, leads some dozen Alzheimer’s patients in a game of dominos.
“They may think we’re just playing games with them,” notes Denise Latini, a Registered Nurse and the Five Star Club’s General Manager, “but we’re exercising their brains, improving motor skills and strengthening coordination.”
Each day 20 to 30 members are brought to the club for a socially therapeutic experience, overseen by a professional and compassionate staff. They come from various backgrounds, yet are united by a shared, irreversible condition. Odds are, none of them will see a cure in their lifetimes. Still, there is light here. There is camaraderie. There is laughter. And yes, there are dogs—every Monday through Friday, in fact.
Barbara Koch and her 12-year-old standard poodle, Lily, have been visiting the Five Star Club for several years. They belong to Animal Samaritans’ popular Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program.
“The three most important things to our Alzheimer’s patients,” explains Latini, “are children, music, and animals…. Most of our members have had a pet.”
Pamela Hays and her AAT dog Maggie, a pit bull/lab mix, joined AAT in January. They visit the Five Star Club every Thursday afternoon.
“I think [the interaction] is as beautiful for me as it is for the clients,” says Hays. “Seeing them pet the dogs, relax, and share their childhood memories—I get a feeling of helping.”
Latini explains that most of her clients have a strong long-term memory, and that the dogs consistently evoke memories of their pets and general positive experiences from the past.
Eisenhower’s Five Star Club in Palm Desert is not merely a refuge for people with Alzheimer’s, it also benefits caregivers. According to Latini, 70% of those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s burn out. Stress takes a toll, and according to Latini it’s not unusual for a caregiver to pass before a patient.
There are roughly 13,000 people in the Coachella Valley living with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past six years, the number of patients with cancer and heart disease has dropped, as science has made important advances in treatment and prevention. And yet, the number of people with Alzheimer’s has surged 68%.
It is not a pretty disease. Embarrassment, denial, and shame compound it’s mental and physical toll.
Whitley is a salt and pepper, two-year old shih tzu who comes to the Five Star Club every Wednesday with her human, AAT volunteer Tiffany Ritchey.
The arm-sized AAT dog was a godsend to Ritchey’s disabled mother. “So, I decided to share her gifts with others,” Ritchey says with a smile.
“Some clients don’t remember meeting me from one week to the week, but they seem to remember Whitney,” explains Ritchey. Especially when she sits on their laps, so they can hug and kiss her.