That’s where the University City Older Adult Center (UCOAC) comes in. One of four senior center programs operated under the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, UCOAC is the only one geared toward those dealing with beginning stages of dementia. It wasn’t always that way, however, said program coordinator Aviva Saad.
“When I started six years ago, I was putting together a program with classical music and [complex] lectures,” she said. “They simply couldn’t relate. It was a trial-and-error process, and I realized there was a need in the community for a program like this for people in those beginning stages [of dementia].”
For $21 a day, members get four hours of activities, exercise, entertainment and a hot kosher lunch. The program is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saad has built the program little by little, asking members what they like and don’t like and observing what they respond to.
“Each one experiences the disease in a different way,” she said. “It’s sad to see people who can’t enjoy things because they’re limited mentally or physically, so we try to do things with them that allow them to engage and be active, and they love it.”
Each day, the program starts with some kind of brain-stimulating activity. One day may feature bingo, another a lecture or brain games. Following that, members move on to physical exercise, which generally involves “dancing” in a chair — moving arms and legs to music, led by Saad. Before lunch, Saad leads members in a brief meditation exercise to calm the mind before they are served by the kitchen volunteers, and lunch is always followed by entertainment, often by local musicians.
Saad said she feels the program helps slow the inevitable progression of a debilitating disease.
“I’m sure that, because of these activities — when they’re engaged and active — the disease doesn’t progress as quickly,” she said. “And I think they understand that, and it makes them happy.”
The program doesn’t help only those who are suffering from dementia. Caregivers, too, benefit from having their load lightened for a few hours a day. Some come with participants — the program doesn’t accept those whose disease has advanced enough that they may wander without a caretaker present — and get the same rewards: exercise, lunch, entertainment. Others, mostly spouses who serve as caregivers, can drop off their loved one and take an afternoon to run errands or relax.
“It’s a win-win,” Saad said.
Though the program is managed through JFS, Saad said roughly 50 percent of participants aren’t Jewish. In fact, several languages and cultures are represented in the group.
Despite their different backgrounds and various stages of health, all the participants can appreciate the program’s activities. On a recent Tuesday, musical group MusicStation kept the group moving with entertainment. Several participants didn’t stop dancing for an entire hour.
“You know it’s good music when people can’t help but move,” said one member.
For Saad, this is a sign her program is working.
“I’ve seen clients that have been coming here for years,” she said. “At first, they’re terrified because it’s scary when you start to decline mentally. Eventually, we make them feel as normal as possible. The beauty is these activities are designed for them, and they start to love coming here.”
For more information on the University City Older Adult Center, visit www.jfssd.org and find the name under the “Services” tab. For those who don’t have transportation, JFS offers rides through its On The Go service for a small fee. Call (858) 637-7320 or visit www.jfssd.org for service areas and eligibility.