SAN JOSE, Calif. – Dates, places, names — such facts are lost in the unforgiving fog of illness and age.
But when 70-year-old Edward Wheat showed 4-year-old Hayden Meyers how to glue glitter on a toy pumpkin, he guided the boy with the grace of a long-ago engineer who once designed water purification systems.
“Yes, that’s the way to do it!” praised Wheat, his fingers sticky with glue and paint. Hayden beamed.
Every day, the Hearts & Minds Activity Center brings together old and young people with the idea that each generation has something to offer the other. The San Jose center provides services to about 90 elders with dementia and dozens of children in its licensed day care facility. Students from local high schools and colleges also volunteer for school credit.
Families pay a fee to participate but donations are needed to bridge the financial gap between the program’s modest revenue and its abundant activities, supported by a well-trained staff.
The center provides 10 hours of care every day, plus lunch and snacks, for $88 a day. But its costs average about $130 a day per person, leaving a nearly $42 gap to be filled. A fundraising drive is underway.
Still, fostering connections across the generations, from toddlers to centenarians, the center doesn’t want to turn anyone away for lack of money.
The nonprofit was founded three decades ago to provide adult day care for people with dementia. When staffers starting bringing their children to work, center executives decided to help them by offering child care.
“We noticed that our clients love the children. So now we have two programs, side by side,” said director Maria Nicolacoudis.
Its elders, all suffering from dementia, feel engaged and needed. The youth learn patience, respect and more.
At one table, Benjamin Bahn, 14, practiced domino skills with a team of cloudy, confused competitors.
In a nearby game called Toma Toda, two Bellarmine College Preparatory sophomores — Gabriel Wood, 14, and Carter Monk, 15 — spun a wooden top and counted up chips for the elders. One senior was agitated and suspicious; another, chatty and triumphant.
Gavin Bovone, 15, scowled as he studied a chess board, his head cradled in his hands, pondering his next move.
His opponent, 86-year-old Rudi Dorn, was happy to watch and wait. Over his long life, Dorn endured emigration from East Germany, a demanding job as a machinist, the deaths of a wife and son and now frustration with simple daily tasks. But he remains a powerful chess player.
“Very good, very good,” coached Dorn, with bright blue eyes and a shock of white hair, dressed in a maroon cardigan sweater.
“Thanks,” sighed Bovone, also a volunteer from Bellarmine, conceding defeat.
Life with dementia can be lonely and isolating. And it is exhausting for caregivers. The partner may be aged, weary and frail. Adult children often juggle jobs, children and stressful commutes.
For the young volunteers, the visits nurture the soul.
“My grandfather had dementia and he died of Parkinson’s disease when I was in fourth grade. But I was too young to understand all that meant,” said Liam Mason, a Bellarmine sophomore.
“Now I feel like I am understanding what he was going through. I am getting to know him better,” he said. “It feels like I am getting closer to him.”
An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, a statistic expected to grow, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as baby boomers pass through their 60s and 70s.
But experts say that stimulating activities — particularly those that were enjoyed in younger years — can make day-to-day life more pleasant, even enriching.
Maria Mendez, 51, cared for both of her parents with dementia. The center’s services meant she could work two jobs, take her children to soccer and even watch the occasional movie. When necessary, it offered reduced rates to the East San Jose family.
Now Mendez visits the center weekly to offer haircuts to other dementia patients.
“They do a great job, the way they care for them. My mother wasn’t able to eat by herself and they took the time to spoon feed her with loving patience,” she said. “And they walked her around so she wouldn’t sit so long.”
In a field notorious for high staff turnover, the center has kept its devoted caregivers for five to 10, even 30, years. It offers benefits such as dental, vision and medical coverage, as well as short term disability, sick days, holiday pay and paid time off.
In light-drenched rooms, there’s a happy buzz.
While short-term memories vanish, other types of memory remain accessible longer, scientists say. Elders may retain “procedural” thinking, such as how to play bingo, or motor memory, such as how to sing and dance.
So the center offers drawing, painting, sewing, crocheting, knitting, and music. There’s a large grassy yard and a garden with lavender, fruit and fig trees. Clients can help with basic cooking. They dry dishes. They fold laundry.
There are slide shows about World War II, travelogues about Europe and films starring Judy Garland. Music ranges from Roy Orbison and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Mexican mariachi tunes.
“If our clients didn’t have dementia, and they weren’t here, where would they be? What would they be doing?” asks Nicolacoudis, whose younger brother suffers from dementia.
“They might be going to a class or a lecture, so we replicate that, making it seem as natural as possible,” she said.
One elder, trained in classical music, sits at the piano every afternoon and plays the same two songs: Amazing Grace and Go Tell Aunt Rhody. Another listens, holding a plastic baby doll tightly to her breast.
Hermelinda Berry can’t recall her profession but loves to knit. “I feel excited about it,” she said. “It makes life more interesting.”
“I love it here. My head is gone. It is the freedom. I am lucky to be in a thing where that hasn’t spilled over to this,” said George Pettit, a retired set designer for theatrical productions, as he pointed to his meticulous work in a coloring book. “This is what I’m doing. It is wonderful.”
And Rudi Dorn plays chess whenever he can, with laserlike focus, almost always beating his young opponents.
“You learn when you lose,” he said brightly, consoling his opponents. “It teaches you something.”