New hospice program to treat Alzheimer’s has local roots
Amedisys in North Strabane implements pilot program for dementia treatment

Melanie Antonio-Greco, a social worker with Amedisys Hospice in North Strabane, holds some of the specialized items given to patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia to help with their treatment. Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
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A pilot program designed to change how hospice workers care for people in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia has its roots in Washington County.

Amedisys, a home health and hospice care provider that helps 380,000 patients nationwide each year, chose its office in North Strabane to become one of just five locations across the country to implement its pilot program for dementia treatment nearly two years ago.

“Getting past the disease and getting to who they are as a person really changes your perspective from a treatment standpoint,” said Melanie Antonio-Greco, a social worker at Amedisys in North Strabane. “The reward is beyond what one can imagine to see that connection. The ultimate goal is improving quality of life.”

The company launched the program in late 2012 after consulting with a wide variety of professionals, including chaplains, doctors, social workers, nurses and others. Through that work, they were able to develop specialized care for patients that could be used by families, in-home caregivers or senior living facility workers to go beyond what typical hospice services offer.

The program includes a long list of different options for each patient to treat the “broad spectrum” associated with dementia. The assessment then allows Amedisys a chance to personalize the treatment by using different items and techniques.

Each treatment plan tries to avoid prescription medication and instead comes with items that often includes stuffed animals, calming blankets, waterless bathing materials or soothing music and personalized CDs tailored to the patient’s interest. What’s more, the package also includes wool gloves so caregivers can learn how difficult it is for the patient to hold on to items, or plastic soles with small knobs that can be put into shoes to mimic tingling or sharp pains in an elderly person’s feet.

“That knowledge is empowering to families and helps them grasp what is going on with their loved one,” Antonio-Greco said. “Every dementia patient is unique to themselves.”

The pilot program came just as Marlene Nowicki’s father, Richard Hummel, was suffering from dementia while living in an assisted living facility in Peters Township. Nowicki, who lives in Nottingham Township, said it was a relief for her family as Amedisys workers brought in the specialized care in addition to what her 87-year-old father was already receiving.

“To me, they were like angels,” Nowicki said. “It was really good news. Physically and financially, it was a big help just having that support.”

The most poignant part of the care was a “chart of life” that showcased old photos and interests during Hummel’s life. It’s a key part of the treatment that adds a human element for caregivers, Antonio-Greco said.

“It’s something simple they can do to help the families. It’s a way for them to reconnect with who they are,” Antonio-Greco said. “It’s also a way for the (nursing home) staff to connect and see who they were. It really brings that human element to life.”

That was especially therapeutic for both Nowicki’s family and her father.

“My dad really appreciated that,” Nowicki said. “Looking back on the family and some of the special times and stuff that meant a lot to him.”

Her father died March 22, 2013, about four months after becoming the first person in this area to be included in the Amedisys’ pilot program for specialized care. The program has since gone to all Amedisys offices for workers across the country to help patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“I’m grateful it can be offered up to be other people,” Nowicki said. “It’s a gift to others.”

Antonio-Greco said the workers in the North Strabane office are especially proud of their work to improve care and how they were able to figure out a program that is now being implemented with the hospice care company across the country.

“Our company saw the need, and we developed something where we can get results,” she said. “Everyone, I think, has benefited from the process, especially the patients.”