Hickory Hill

Dementia is isolating. In Memphis, Dorothy's Place keeps people connected and helps slow decline.

People living with Alzheimer's and dementia can often become increasing isolated as their condition progresses. Social interaction and activities that stimulate the brain are critical to mental and behavioral health and help slow deterioration. 

Ruthann Shelton, executive director of Alzheimer's and Dementia Services of Memphis, Inc. (High Ground, Cat Evans) Dorothy's Place is a day facility offering a solution to isolation for patients and their caregivers. It's located in Hickory Hill and operated by Alzheimer's and Dementia Services of Memphis, Inc. It serves clients across the Mid-South including northern Mississippi.

From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, clients participate in a variety of activities to keep their brains engaged and basic skills sharp while maintaining social connectivity. They also share breakfast and lunch together.

Dorothy's Place refers to its clients as 'friends.'

“When the world tells them what they can't do, we get to tell them what they can do,” said Ruthann Shelton, executive director of ADSM. 


What Dorothy Does for Friends and Their Families

Sybille Noble is a retired attorney and caregiver for her 91-year-old mother.

Several years ago, Noble noticed her mother growing more and more forgetful. She stopped cooking and driving. When her short-term memory started to fail, Noble decided her mother needed more activities to slow her decline.

Noble is aware there's no cure for dementia, only an opportunity to give her mother the best possible life in her time remaining. She enrolled her mother at Dorothy's Place 18 months ago.

She now attends five days a week. Noble said her mother has had more success maintaining her remaining functions since she began.

“She doesn't ask questions as often," said Noble. "I can actually have conversations with my mom, and we can chat about different things. She loves Dorothy's Place. She gets up every morning ready to go."

Still, her mother's condition is unpredictable. Some days are worse than others.

“She can remember things within the range of a day or two. She can't remember five minutes [ago]. So she might ask me why we're here," said Noble. "She'll ask me that 25 times in an hour, and I repeat it."

Noble is unsure if her mother has Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia in people over 65. Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions that include a loss of memory, language and problem-solving abilities and impact a person's ability to complete their normal activities.

“A lot of times the traits of both kind of blend,” said Noble of the uncertainty of the diagnoses.

“You have to have a brain autopsy [after death] to really establish the particular markers that are in the brain for Alzheimer's," said Shelton.

Client Emma (right) shares laughter and a playful moment with Alzheimer's and Dementia Services of Memphis' assistant development director, Judy Davis. (High Ground News, Cat Evans)

Shelton said 75% of the friends at Dorothy's Place are women. She said across the country, women have higher rates of dementia than men with several contributing factors. Women lived longer on average, but Shelton said it's also a matter of self-care.

“When a spouse is taking care of his wife, he takes her someplace for help," she said. "A wife will run herself into the ground trying to take care of her husband."

Stress, ignoring mental health needs, a lack of sleep, and poor heart health are linked to an increased risk of developing dementia, especially when present long-term.
 

What To Do At Dorothy's

Dorothy's Place offers 20-plus activities, some scheduled and some open to participation at any time. 

"We don't force anyone into anything. They get to choose. Sometimes we might creatively nudge them into doing something we think they might enjoy," Shelton said.

Activities to encourage basic skills retention include language exercises, clothes folding and a cooking class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Arts, crafting, and games are offered daily. Some of the most popular activities are Tai chi, music therapy, visits from therapy dogs, and special performances by Creative Aging of the Mid-South.

“They love it and they do it really well,” said Shelton of the Tai chi classes. 

There are live birds and fish outside for relaxation. A yellow brick road runs along the floors of the activity rooms. It soothes many clients in more advanced stages of their disease.

“The aimless wanderers follow it, and we can call them into an activity [from there],” said Shelton, referencing a symptom of dementia where suffers walk without a destination.

Kay attends the Dorothy's Place day program for people with Alzheimer's and Dementia. Here she sorts and folds clothes and pieces of fabric keep her basic self-care skills sharp. (High Ground News, Cat Evans)

The staff always praise and celebrate the friends' participation in activities, regardless of performance. 

“We don't care about the end result. [We care] that they enjoy the process,” said Shelton. “It helps them maintain. We're stretching and using abilities so they're maintaining them more,” said Shelton.

Founded in 1983, ADSM has 37 employees across its two locations. Its Kennedy Park location on Raleigh LaGrange Road opened in 1988. Dorothy's Place launched at 3185 Hickory Hill Road in October 2004.

ADSM partners with a number of other organizations to expand its reach and mission beyond its individual capacities.

Judy Elaine Davis, ADSM's assistant development director, said the two of the City of Memphis police and fire stations in the area make donations to Dorothy's Place. To show appreciation, the center's friends baked them cookies

“We were out in the community giving them cookies to thank them for being our partners,” said Davis.

Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)
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