When people ask 14-year-old Lilly Walker how she spent this past summer she has an unusual reply.
She talks about holding the hands of and talking with Alzheimer’s patients and people with other types of dementia who live in the memory care wing at Brookdale Bradenton Gardens, 5612 26th St. W., Bradenton.
The wing is known by insiders as Clare Bridge after the internationally recognized Clare Bridge Program that established techniques for treating memory patients.
It’s an unusual summer volunteer role for a teen, but Lilly Walker is unusual.
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Since the age of 5, Lilly has wanted to be a doctor and help others. Her career ambitions have switched from veterinarian to physician dealing with developmental disabilities, to dentist, dermatologist and cardiologist.
For now, the ninth-grader has had the benefit of access and inspiration as a volunteer in memory caret because her mother, Dierdra Walker, is the executive director of Brookdale Bradenton Gardens. The facility has about 50 residents in assisted living and 20 in memory care.
Before she had this position, Dierdra Walker — also with Lilly tagging along — worked with people with developmental disabilities in Bradenton and elsewhere, including at Manasota ARC, which later merged with United Cerebral Palsy of Southwest Florida.
Dierdra Walker, who has a certificate from the University of South Florida as an Understanding Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care trainer, has tried to help her daughter understand her clients over the years and, now that she is working at Brookdale, coaches her in memory malfunctions and their symptoms.
Lilly’s summer as a volunteer was the most challenging of all the summers she has spent by her mom’s side, Lilly said.
Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, according to the National Institutes of Health. The disease erodes a person’s ability to think, leaving them eventually unable to carry out the simplest of tasks. They may lose the ability to recognize even themselves and family members.
But Lilly said she was not daunted by the experience.
In fact, following her work in Bradenton with 20 residents at Brookdale, the teen, who lives with her parents and brother, Bryce, in St. Petersburg and attends Boca Ciega Medical Magnet High School there, is now seriously considering being a neurologist, geriatric psychiatrist or geriatrician.
“I love working with people in memory care,” Lilly said last week while sitting in her mother’s office. “I love helping them remember things about their lives.”
Last Wednesday was a special day for Lilly, as it confirmed her impact during that experience.
She had not been back to the memory wing at Brookdale since the summer. She wondered if residents, especially two that she worked with a lot, Barbara Licht and June Wilson, would remember her. Did the time she spent with them make make a difference, she wondered.
The long walk to Clare Bridge
At Brookdale, to get to Clare Bridge one must walk through heavy double wood doors that require a code only employees know.
Lilly had no sooner walked through the wood door when the small, but spunky June Wilson, who has laughing eyes, waved vigorously at Lilly from her wheelchair.
“She remembers you,” Dierdra Walker said to her daughter.
It seemed as if many of the residents remembered the teen.
Barbara Licht saw her and reached for Lilly’s hand.
When asked what she and Licht talked about all summer Lilly said, “She told me stories of other times or she would mention how her day is going.”
“I love her,” Licht said, smiling at Lilly. “You’re a beautiful girl.”
Dierdra Walker said the extraordinary moment validates what she has thought all along about her daughter’s ability to reach people.
“It tells me she did make an impression on them,” Dierdra Walker said. “It’s fantastic. It’s not always easy to do that. For them to remember her means she made a deep connection with them. I am very proud.”
There are many memory care facilities in Bradenton and each has its own approach. Brookdale follows a program called “Clare Bridge Daily Path” in which every small success makes a difference to the resident, Dierdra Walker said.
As part of the routine, the staff — Porsha Jones, Latasha Faison, Courtney Love — help at morning mental workouts with discussions, brain-stimulation games and reminiscing, Dierdra Walker said.
A state-of-the art, personalized, touch-screen in the TV room is loaded with information about each of the residents, so Lilly could consult the computer, then query the residents about aspects of their lives. Then she could reinforce their memories.
“Clare Bridge focuses on sustained feelings of belonging,” Dierdra Walker said. “The goal is to give each resident a feeling of purpose that, we hope, will preserve a sense of self.”
Lilly Walker feels the residents remember her because she threw herself into their daily routines. She helped pass out food and drinks according to diet requirements.
Dierdra Walker thinks that the residents noticed her concern and great care. “The good thing about having the connection that Lilly does is that when they are having a bad moment someone like her can bring them out of it.”
Lilly said she believes that when a resident in the program didn’t make sense it could be a cry for help in the only way they know.
“Sometimes I go with it,” Lilly said of the odd replies she sometimes gets. “Other times I might go over and get assistance because it might be something that I need to have checked out.”