June 12, 2003
CONTACT: Carol Anderson

Eastern Michigan University model respite care project
finds unique, yet simple, ways to help others in community

YPSILANTI – It’s as if Mattie and Joseph Wright of Canton had won a contest.

People came weekly with bags of their favorite foods and made a hot, three-course meal. The visitors also set the table, brought taped music and cleaned up after the meal.

But Joseph, 83, who has dementia, and his 79-year-old wife, Mattie, didn’t win any contest. The service was provided by Eastern Michigan University students as part of the University’s Respite Care Project.

Eastern Michigan University students Stacy Wallace, of Ann Arbor, and Yi-Min Cheng, of Ypsilanti are just two of more than 90 students in the program who visit people in the community who need assistance.

The program, which is considered a model for other universities in the state, began with a grant in 2001. And while the grant was recently terminated due to the state’s budget crunch, Anne Robinson, director of EMU’s Alzheimer’s Education Program, said the project would move forward.

“The project will continue in a modified way,” said Robinson. “EMU has a strong commitment to service families. There is no doubt in my mind that the project is continuing.”

With the state grant, EMU created a new approach to home care where the emphasis is to design meaningful experiences for people with dementia, said Lisa Gray, project co-director of the Respite Project at EMU.

The University’s in-home respite project, a service of EMU’s Alzheimer’s Education Program, provides a break for many people -- those with dementia or severe memory loss, their caretakers and their families. Respite care is traditionally custodial, performing activities of daily living such as personal care.

The EMU project provides families with home visits and focuses on the remaining abilities the person has rather than on what they can’t do, said Gray.
Since June 2001, 25 families in Washtenaw, Oakland, Wayne, Lenawee and Livingston counties have been helped by the project.

Juniors, seniors and graduate students from gerontology, dietetics, occupational therapy or nursing receive special training on dementia before going into the home. They collect information on the person’s hobbies, past jobs and medical history before designing an activity plan for their weekly, three-to-four hour visits.

Student and family activities include gardening, going to a restaurant, or attending a symphony or concert. One person with dementia had been interested in horses, so the student brought in a saddle and other equipment to his home for the two of them to clean.

“Most families are impressed that students are interested in them and shocked as to what students can do with a patient,” said Gray.

Wallace and Cheng developed a plan for Joseph to help with the meals. Joseph washed potatoes, stirred food and helped set the table. They discovered that he could not distinguish between actual food on the table and the printed flowers on a tablecloth, so they changed to a plain table covering.

“Joe is not aware of everything that’s happening around him, but he understands conversation and enjoys the familiar surroundings,” said Mattie.

He first exhibited signs of dementia, said his wife, when he was a church treasurer and was making mistakes on the financial records. Later, as a repairman, he began getting lost on familiar routes.

Growing up in Alabama on a 40-acre farm provided many memories for Joseph. In 1937, he met George Washington Carver, inventor of peanut butter and many other peanut products. Today, Joseph has a hard time remembering many things without help from Mattie.

Both Mattie and the students have exchanged recipes. Mattie has traded several of her southern recipes for the students’ secret to good salmon.

“I learned a lot from them (the Wrights),” said Wallace “You see many people with dementia, but until you spend some quality time with someone, you don’t truly understand it (the disease).”

The students also have gained insights into African-American culture, life in post-World War II Detroit, Mattie’s make-do homemaking skills and her love of poetry.

“I think I made a difference in their lives,” said Wallace. “Not in any earth-shattering way, but I think I did make their life happier.”