By B.C. Manion
When Joyce Simard was beginning her career as a social worker, she pictured herself working with young children.
That vision never materialized.
The only job she could find at the time was in a nursing home. That unexpected diversion set her off on a path she could never have imagined.
The Land O’ Lakes woman went on to a career in geriatric care, working for nursing home corporations and then becoming an independent consultant.
She still does consulting work, jetting across the United States and to foreign countries to share her expertise on caring for people with advanced dementia.
She wrote a book about a program she developed called Namaste Care and is currently writing an update that will be offered in print and as an e-book.
The book — The End-of-Life Namaste Care Program for People with Dementia — offers practical and simple ways to establish and operate programs honoring the dignity of people with advanced dementia.
Recently, Simard was recognized for her work by Provider magazine and a panel of judges, who selected her as one of 20 to Watch in 2013. The newly created honor recognizes professionals who have made such significant contributions in long-term and post-acute care.
In a profile published by Provider, Simard deflected attention from herself to her Namaste Care program.
Her goal is to help people with advanced dementia to experience quality of life, despite the obvious challenges, Simard said in an interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
When she took her first nursing home job, she expected it to be short-lived.
“I thought, this will just be temporary. And here I am 35 years later, totally fallen in love with the elderly; in particular, those with dementia,” Simard said.
When working at nursing homes, she knew she wouldn’t be able to counsel people suffering from memory loss because they wouldn’t be able to remember what they talked about, she said.
“So, I started by singing with them and dancing with them and helping them to touch feelings through art and through just being busy,” she said.
That approach evolved into a concept called continuous programming, which Simard labeled The Club. She launched the program in a state veterans’ nursing home in Bennington, Vt.
The continuous programming helped reduce some of the problems that occur at nursing homes, Simard said.
Typically, nursing homes might schedule an exercise program from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., then there’d be a break and then something else at 10:30 a.m. and so on.
But between activities, people might wander around and fall or perhaps fall asleep and then be wide-awake at 2 a.m., Simard said.
With The Club, “We were able to lower the falls. We were able to decrease or eliminate the use of antipsychotics,” Simard said.
She traveled nationwide, teaching the approach to staff at facilities providing care for people with moderate, irreversible dementia, she said.
She developed Namaste Care in response to a hospital administrator’s request for help in reaching residents with advanced dementia.
These are the residents who are beyond the point of being able to participate in trivia, sing-alongs and other activities used by The Club, Simard said. Often, they have reached such an advanced stage of dementia that they can no longer walk or talk.
“I knew I needed to develop something very special for them. It needed a name,” Simard said.
At the time, she had been reading something that said, “Namaste — to honor the spirit within,” and decided the name was perfect because that was exactly the aim of her program.
“What I discovered is that people with advanced dementia blossom when they’re lovingly touched,” she said.
Namaste Care emphasizes the power of loving touch.
“We take a room and we lower the lights,” Simard said. “We use the scent of lavender, because there are studies that lavender decreases agitation. We play soft music. … From the moment they enter that room, somebody is there, respecting them as individuals. For some, it’s a hug. For some, it’s a handshake.
“We tuck a quilt around them, very much like you swaddle your babies,” Simard added.
Everything that happens in the room is done at a relaxed pace, she said.
“For instance, we might wash a woman’s face, and as we’re doing it, we say, ‘Oh, you have such beautiful skin.’”
Products are used that may evoke memories for the residents. For instance, Pond’s cold cream is used for the women and Old Spice for the men.
“We brush someone’s hair,” she said, much like the resident’s mother may have done.
“It’s all about love. Some families say that when you go into a Namaste room it’s like being enveloped in a big hug,” Simard said.
“Families find it is so much easier for them to visit when Namaste is taking place. Their visits are so much longer.”
Residents respond to Namaste Care, she said.
“There has not ever been a day when I opened a new program that there has not been a miracle that happened,” Simard said.
It may be a mother saying “I love you” to her daughter, even though the mother hasn’t spoken in years. Or, residents who may have been routinely agitated may become noticeably more relaxed.
Simard recalls an instance when she noticed a woman who had been massaging her mother’s hand had tears streaming down her face.
She asked the woman why she was crying.
“She said, ‘My mother just took my hand and began to massage me.’”
Over time, Namaste Care has been adopted by facilities around the globe in such places as Australia, Greece and Great Britain.
“I never, ever would have anticipated that it would be international,” Simard said.
The program works because it relies on the universal power of human touch.
“What I find is that culture, religion, language, everything just disappears with the power of loving touch,” Simard said.
Understanding what happens with dementia can help family members dealing with a loved one who is struggling with the condition.
“At the beginning, they know something is terribly wrong,” Simard said. In the early stages, just writing things down and using a calendar can help the person struggling with dementia to reduce their sense of confusion, she said.
“When they get to the moderate stage of the disease, they live in a different reality,” she said.
At that stage, family members and friends need to let go of the notion that they can snap their loved one back into reality, Simard said.
“You don’t argue. Join their journey. It makes such a big difference.”
Joyce Simard welcomes the opportunity to give talks to local organizations and schools. Anyone interested should contact her at . For more information, visit www.JoyceSimard.com.