A pandemic respite for weary caregivers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Live Oak Adult Day Services provided an oasis for seniors with dementia and their exhausted caregivers.

For a few hours a week, seniors went to one of four facilities in Santa Clara County for games, meals, music, art therapy, gentle exercise and conversation. The thriving nonprofit served about 125 clients, including a former nuclear physicist, dentist, church organist, an Air Force pilot and many veterans and immigrants who fled Europe after World War II.

But the pandemic shuttered Live Oak through the darkest days of the crisis. Caregivers and their loved ones had few places to turn.

“It was very challenging,” said Junelle Blandford, program director at Live Oak’s Willow Glenn center. “Complete isolation. It was both physically and mentally challenging.”

Live Oak adjusted to the new world of Zoom, and brought video programs and therapies into the homes of their clients, whose average age is 87. But their reach diminished — just 25 of their elderly clients had internet access and capable technology to follow along.

As the pandemic threat has receded, Live Oak has tried to rebuild its services and staff.

Seniors, including Kay Houts, 92, participate in a chair exercise course led by fitness instructor Tania Swain, far right. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

The agency recently reopened its facilities in San Jose, Cupertino and Gilroy, a welcome respite for family members looking after their frail loved ones. But Live Oak lost several employees to retirement and other jobs during the health crisis, and is seeking help to attract workers and boost pay for its small staff. It has been unable to hire enough workers to reopen its Los Gatos center.

They’re asking the community for at least $20,000 through Wish Book to support their often-overlooked mission. “We need to hire more staff,” said executive director Ann Peterson.

Live Oak was founded in 1983 to provide services for seniors with dementia and support family members. The agency would like to continue its online program for seniors and families still concerned about COVID safety. Though the minimum age is 60, Peterson said, “we’ll take anybody as long as they can benefit from our programs.”

The path through the pandemic has been difficult, she said. They shuttered their facilities as soon as the state imposed emergency measures in March 2020. “We were kind of in shock,” she said.

They pieced together virtual programs. Social workers led word and board games over video meetings. They mailed packets of art supplies to clients, and hosted online art therapy classes. Community groups played music, read short stories, and led online singalongs.

But reaching just 1 in 5 of their clients during the pandemic meant reopening as quickly and safely as possible was vital.

About half of the seniors have returned since Live Oak’s reopening in May and the changes in recent months have been noticeable. “They’re a lot more open to conversation,” Blandford said. “Just being able to get into a different space, a different setting, has perked them up.”

Caring full-time for an elderly spouse suffering dementia or the consequences of a stroke can be a stressful, tiring and private journey.

Junelle Blandford, right, programs director at Live Oak Adult Day Services, gives John Buxton, 68, hand sanitizer following a chair exercise course. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

The day care centers are often one of the few lifelines that allow seniors to stay at home, rather than move to assisted living or memory care facilities. The few hours a week of free time allow caregivers to work, shop, finish chores, take care of bills or simply rest.

Mary Moran, 78, is the sole caretaker of her husband, Dennis. The couple lives in San Jose, and both taught art in the public schools for several decades. In the late 1970s, Dennis Moran opened a booth at the county fair, and drew caricatures for fair-goers for nearly 20 years.

He began to struggle through mild dementia in 2007, and was formally diagnosed five years ago. Dennis, 82, needs constant supervision, his wife said. His wanderings into the backyard tool shed, and attempts to start a project, have ended with seven trips to the emergency room.

“I have to be hyper-vigilant,” Mary said. Most of the power tools are now gone.

Covid stay-at-home precautions and the daily caregiving demands meant something had to give. Mary discovered Live Oak shortly after it reopened in May. The couple liked the historic Willow Glen facility: the sprawling home, in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, was built in 1913 for former Willow Glen Mayor Paul Clark.

Mary takes her husband there three times a week. He’s warmed up to activities, and has started drawing for the other clients. They like his work.

“I’d have been in the funny farm or collapsed if it wasn’t for Live Oak,” she said. “It’s made it possible to keep my husband at home.”

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