WAYNESBURG – Martha Smoljanovich sat in her wheelchair, her eyes no less bright than her smile. She looked straight ahead, and without any prompting, said, “You know, I can't drive anymore.”
It was a few days before Thanksgiving in 2012 when Martha, now 83, was involved in a car accident, the result of suffering a mild heart attack. The accident fractured her ankle, and she was taken to Washington Hospital for treatment.
Once stabilized, Martha went to Humbert Lane Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Washington and was transferred in December to Rolling Meadows in Waynesburg, another nursing and rehabilitation center, to be closer to family and friends.
A widow since 1986 with two grown children, Martha treasured her independence, living alone in her home on East Greene Street in Waynesburg, but not far from her younger sister, Helen Bucciarelli. “Martha would go to bingo, square dances and to the Moose Lodge in Waynesburg,” Helen said. “She loved to go out and do things. She was the extrovert.”
The accident, however, put an end to her freedom and mobility, and it also, in an indirect way, revealed an issue no heart medication or orthopedic intervention could correct.
While at Rolling Meadows, Helen said Martha developed a urinary tract infection, which apparently awakened an underlying condition in her – dementia. Now, Helen said, once the infection was effectively treated, the symptoms of dementia seemed to lessen.
According to the Alzheimer's Association website, “UTI can cause confusion in older people and people with dementia. If the person has a sudden and unexplained change in their behavior, such as increased confusion, agitation, or withdrawal, this may be caused by a UTI.”
Martha continued to make progress at Rolling Meadows, but while she was there a representative from Senior CARE – Greene County's satellite office of Washington County's Senior LIFE – came and spoke to Martha about the services. The agency offers seniors a host of programs designed to make it possible for them to remain at home. And the program's adult day care services are ideal for elderly people who cannot be left alone during the day, yet do not require 24-hour care.
“She liked what they had to say, and so did I,” Helen said, because within two months, in February 2013, Martha would come to live with Helen. Her role of sister soon became one of caregiver.
“I don't drive, and there was always the problem of getting her to the doctor and just getting her out,” Helen said. “She doesn't like staying in the house all the time. Martha and I are different because I can stay in the house and read and watch TV, but Martha needs to get out and meet people.”
One month after moving in with Helen, Martha began going to Senior CARE. “It was such a big relief because I know she is being taken care of. When she is at home, I try very hard not to leave her alone: You just never know, with the dementia and all,” she said.
Martha goes to Senior CARE five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and is picked up and brought home by a Senior CARE van. “Knowing she is being taken care of and knowing she is safe means I can walk uptown and go to appointments,” Helen said..
At Senior CARE, Martha receives physical therapy because she still needs a wheelchair to get around. Each day a therapist will help Martha use a walker, and the two of them will make their way up and back in the facility. Martha also is exposed to other people there, and that enables her to participate in crafts, conversation and socialization.
Bradley Poling, a social worker at Senior CARE, described Martha as “the epitome of what Senior CARE is all about.
“She has the desire to work with us and her sister, and this is keeping her out of a nursing home,” he said. “She has done everything that has been asked of her, following medical recommendations and participating in activities, and she has really, really improved. Her quality of life has improved.”
Poling said when Martha initially came to Senior CARE, she did exhibit a degree of dementia. “But the activities she experiences here socializes her to the point the dementia does not interfere with her daily life.”
Poling emphasized that once a diagnosis is issued, “you are never undiagnosed with dementia.” Yet, he said, without the mind being stimulated through all the activities, the dementia would be more progressive.
“The more stimulation you get, the fewer problems you will have, and the longer Martha keeps coming here, the better for her.”
And no one would agree with that more than Jean Miller, a family friend who has been at Helen's side throughout. When Helen goes to Senior CARE to see Martha, it is Jean who drives her.
“All I can say is that Senior CARE has been a lifeline for both of them. And I honestly think that if Martha did not have this place to come to, she very well might be dead,” Jean said.
“I just know that Helen has gone above and beyond what any sister needs to do. I have adopted both of them as my aunts, and they know I am just a phone call away,” she said.
As Martha finished her therapy walk and returned to her wheelchair, pleased with her progress, she glanced around, her eyes and smile as bright as ever. “Now, my next goal is to drive again,” she said.