Memory center expands at JCC MetroWest

Memory center expands at JCC MetroWest

Support extended to Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers

Bonnie Schechter, the memory center’s director, standing, is with participants there.
Bonnie Schechter, the memory center’s director, standing, is with participants there.

The Jonathan and Nancy Littman Memory Center at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange is expanding to care for people with more progressed cases of cognitive impairment.

“The memory center has been extremely successful,” its chief program officer, Sharon Gordon, said. The center, under the direction of Bonnie Schechter, has been serving people with mild to moderate cases of memory loss for the last seven years Now it is adding a program for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia..

“We were finding that participants weren’t as actively engaged as their disease progressed,” Sharon Gordon, the chief program officer, said. “We needed to find a more person-centered approach designed to meet different skill levels. While the immense need for the program may be sad, the smiles, joy, and relief the program brings to its participants and their caregivers is great.”

The JCC also was receiving more requests from caregivers for an approach that fostered a sense of community for their loved ones whose conditions had deteriorated.

The expansion program, as it’s being called for now, had a soft opening at the end of January. Some new participants signed up and some transferred from the original program. “We are so grateful to the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Sephardic Foundation on Aging, and the Jewish Foundation of MetroWest for their generous support in making the expansion possible,” Ms. Gordon said.

The center’s new space, which opens onto a peaceful courtyard, is under construction and is expected to be completed by mid-April. It will serve 15 to 20 participants compared to 35 in the original program

The Memory Center offers participants a person-centered approach.

Miriam Becker, the director of the initiative, is certified as a dementia practitioner, a dementia specialist, a dementia support group facilitator, and is also a board-certified activity professional. She has more than 10 years’ experience working with people with early to late-end stages of Alzheimer’s and varying forms of dementia.

“The expanded program started only six weeks ago and has already created invaluable experiences,” she said. “More than just starting or growing a program, we expand hearts. Those who were somewhat inactive or socially disengaged have become more verbal and engaged through our person-centered approach. Witnessing their active involvement and smiles has been incredible.”

The expansion program now includes two participants who are over 100 years old, as well as two Holocaust survivors. Some participants have hearing and vision issues; they benefit from keeping the group smaller. It helps keep them engaged.

“Our participants’ family members have reported a positive impact on their loved ones,” Ms. Becker said. “Just because a person has memory issues does not mean that their life is devoid of meaning. To the contrary, we forge a sense of purpose, respect, happiness, and belonging.”

Caregiver feedback on the expansion program already has been rewarding. One caregiver said that it has been a godsend. She husband had been declining cognitively and the original program, which had been an oasis for him two and a half years ago, no longer was meeting his needs. In the expansion group, the activities – including word games, movement games, and art therapy — have been adapted to his abilities to keep him engaged and happy.

Activities are paced quickly in both programs to keep engagement high. Discussions are encouraged and activity leaders make sure everyone is comfortable and included. Each program has two activity leaders in the room alternating between games, so there is never a lull. A certified nursing assistant is also in each program’s room to help participants make safe trips to and from the restrooms.

Ms. Schechter works with a participant.

“Our staff only has everyone’s best interests at heart,” Ms. Gordon said. Staff and family, consulting together, will assess if they feel a participant would benefit by transferring into the expansion program. “We don’t push.”

Participants rewceive a hot kosher lunch and also enjoy entertainment in the main dining room on Thursdays. Spending the day at the JCC sometimes also includes a visit from children at the onsite childcare center. All of this, in addition to the structured program, helps combat feelings of isolation in a safe environment.

Michele Bernstein, coordinator of the Center for Adult Enrichment, runs a monthly support group for caregivers of the participants enrolled in the Littman programs. Caregivers are encouraged to share experiences and help develop strategies.

“The caregivers are appreciative of the support group, and they’ve also formed their own friendships and support networks,” Ms. Bernstein said. “They go to lunch. They check in on each other. It’s really nice to see.

“We focus on self-care for the caregiver.”

The Littman Memory Center programs give a respite to the caregiver, even ifor just a few days a week. Caregivers may experience strains on their relationships, physical and emotional stress, feelings of isolation, depression, and fatigue. Program directors can help with referrals for more help and support.

The original program runs Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The expansion program runs Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

For more information, call Sharon Gordon at (973) 530-3480, email her at, or go to the JCC’s website,, and click on programs and then Littman Memory Center.

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