Home Sweet Haven: Michigan’s top dementia care program is based in Traverse City, and growing.

REGION – More than a home, Cherry Hill is a haven. A safe place specializing in professional memory care, where all residents are accepted for who they are – and where their mind is – at any given moment, Cherry Hill Haven in Traverse City is the only health care facility in the region that exclusively cares for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

It is also the only facility in Michigan that has been recognized by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America with an "Excellence in Care Dementia Program of Distinction." For all these reasons and more, Cherry Hill Haven has been awarded the Governor's Quality Care Award. The health care facility is owned by Patti Dixon.

In all there are currently six homes in the Cherry Hill family, offering a variety of living options. Four of the homes are located on North Long Lake Road just a couple of miles from downtown Traverse City. The first home opened in 1995, followed by a women-only facility in 1997 and another home in 2005. Just in the past year, three more have opened: the Men's Lodge (also on North Long Lake Rd.), Cherry Hill Haven of Kalkaska (formerly Generations, an assisted living facility) and Cherry Hill Nest, on Secor Road in Traverse City.

A staff of 65 keeps the homes humming along – a staff that has received extensive training in the care of these types of patients. Dr. Doug Spence of Creekside Clinic in Traverse City is the on-site physician and there are also three nurses on staff.

First, to clear up any confusion, a quick medical lesson: There are more than 125 forms of dementia, of which Alzheimer's disease is just one. In other words – everyone with Alzheimer's has dementia, but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive impairment in memory, judgment, decision-making, orientation to physical surroundings and language. The German psychiatrist and pathologist Alois Alzheimer first described this form of pre-senile dementia in 1907.

"The residents here vacillate between higher functioning and lower functioning moments," says director Evon Ryan. It's almost as if there is a dial on the side of their heads, constantly being tweaked, she explains. "Every day, though, their abilities are diminishing."

Ryan has been the facility's director for the last 11 years. She came to the job by unforeseen circumstances, but with management experience in other fields as well as volunteer work with people suffering from dementia.

She says the work just came natural to her. "It just made sense," she says. "I spend a few hours with a new resident to figure out what works and then train the staff."

Ryan says as recently as 15 years ago, the reigning philosophy on care for persons suffering from dementia was to attempt to reorient them to reality. Since that time, however, there has been a significant shift to meeting the patients in "their reality."

What it ultimately creates is a calm, relaxed environment. The day the TCBN visited Cherry Hill Haven, there were 14 demented people in the home, and it was as peaceful as could be.

This type of interaction with dementia sufferers is known as validation therapy, a form of conversation that is non-confrontational and takes residents "realities" into consideration when dealing with them. There is no scolding, no punishing, no corrective actions, Ryan explains. "We do a lot of 'setting up to succeed'."

"Years ago, family members were embarrassed of someone in their family with dementia," adds Ryan. But now there is so much more known about dementia and how to live with it and, perhaps most importantly, more support for caregivers. Ryan leads a support group in Grand Traverse County offered through the Alzheimer's Association. It meets the first and third Wednesday of every month at the Hawthorne Cottage at the Grand Traverse Pavilions. She also has a training video on communicating more effectively with people with dementia posted on You Tube. Info on other support groups in neighboring counties can be found at alz.org/gmc.

"Our job is to create an atmosphere of merriment," says Ryan. "They all feel accepted for just the way they are." BN

Next up?

Cherry Hill Cottage

A "Coming Soon: Memory Care Facility" by Cherry Hill Haven sign stands in front of a home across from Munson Medical Center on Elmwood Avenue. It will be called Cherry Hill Cottage, done in the style of Mackinac Island's Stonecliffe

Cottages, says Ryan. There are no specifics on the timeline of that project.