“My mother said I always loved old people,” said Wanda Demarest. “I would always invite them to my birthday parties.”
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It seems fitting that Demarest, program supervisor at the Placerville Senior Day Care Center, would think of parties and the elderly as a good match, since having fun and enjoying life is the whole purpose behind the Senior Day Care Center.
“This is the one thing that can make a powerful, positive impact for both the elderly and for their families,” said Demarest of the Day Center. “Socialization and exercise help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Our mission is to prevent premature institutionalization.”
Living life to the fullest and helping to make sure that elderly clients are active and engaged in their lives is what Demarest, 65, is all about. She has been making this happen at the Day Center since 1989 when she opened the facility.
Demarest didn’t plan to open a senior day care center. She worked in customer service for her father’s business in the Silicon Valley and moved to Placerville in the 1970s when her former husband got a job with Mother Lode Rehabilitation Enterprises Inc.
“After my son was born, I saw an ad in the paper for an activity director: apply in person. So I drove to the address and it was the El Dorado Convalescent Hospital. I thought, ‘I can’t do that.'”
That was on a Friday. She went to the library to read up about convalescent hospitals and found a book written by an El Dorado Convalescent Hospital volunteer.
On the following Monday, Demarest applied for and got the job.
“After six months, no one had died and I was having fun. I learned all about senior nutrition needs, their concerns and health issues, did a lot of care planning and was exposed to every aspect of what seniors need. It was wonderful — a perfect training ground for what I do now,” she said.
As she worked, Demarest wanted to know more. She and a co-worker fantasized about opening an adult day care center and she visited several in different parts of the state and attended state conferences to learn about them. She even quit her full-time job to take a part-time position at the Placerville Senior Center providing information assistance.
“I knew they were planning to open a facility like this and I was hoping there would be an opening for an activity director.”
The job ended, but, after seeing a Request for Proposal for an adult day health center, Demarest pulled together her own ideas for how one should be run, with goals and specific objectives like self-sustainability. She based her proposal on a social model instead of a health-based model and suggested it as a county-run program.
“I got the job and it was so exciting,” said Demarest. “What an incredible opportunity.”
Moving into the old Pioneer Hospital facility on Spring Street, Demarest said she had a desk, a chair and a phone.
Her boss went out on sick leave for three months, so Demarest created policies and procedures, designed applications and forms for the Day Center and used his computer to do so. With a $30,000 grant from the Sierra Health Foundation she ordered office furniture, activity equipment, tables and chairs, beds for resting, a library, kitchen equipment and food for the snacks she would serve to her clients.
“I ran back and forth to Sacramento, made a million decisions, and recruited and trained my staff in four months,” said Demarest. “I had a steno pad and would make long lists of to-dos and then cross them off when I got done.”
Demarest credits the community with helping to boost the Day Center to a great start.
“I’d spent the grant on equipment and things were looking a little bleak and then the Placerville Soroptimists stepped in and put on a breakfast for us. They invited all the service clubs and we told them all about the center. Even though it snowed that morning, we made $1,000.”
Almost 20 volunteers showed up from the clubs for a work day.
“In one day, they made curtains from sheets and we put them up; they hung 30 blinds; they washed all the dishes (Demarest insisted her clients be served only with real dishware, not plastic) and they assembled all the tables and chairs. We had an open house a week before the opening and 150 people showed up,” said Demarest. “It was great.”
When the center put out a call for a piano, Demarest got a call from Maxine Andrews, one of the famous Andrews Sisters singing trio.
“She donated a small piano and then she came over and entertained at the Day Center and at the Senior Center,” she said.
Within six months, Demarest had already achieved one of her goals — to make the center self-supporting through donations and client fees.
“I had thought it would take three years.”
Another goal of an average daily attendance of 12 clients was also achieved early on and there was a waiting list. “We grew so fast that we had to remodel to expand the capacity to 32,” said Demarest.
The waiting list had 100-150 people on it by 1997 and Demarest kept having to add tables so that she could fit as many as 44 clients in.
The community also stepped up when the Day Center needed a patio with a shade shelter, a $50,000 project.
“The Soroptimists and other service groups donated their time and the supplies,” said Demarest. ” We had to have all kinds of permits and engineered plans and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, how can we do this?'”
The next day an engineer walked into the Day Center and offered to do all the plans free of charge.
Demarest concentrated on building a program that promoted a sense of fun with great activities, entertainment and exercise.
“Our seniors are among their peers so they feel accepted and loved. Memory loss is not a normal part of aging — the ability to retrieve slows down but intelligence doesn’t. People can do a lot for themselves for a long time with a little support. Here no one says,’You already told me that.'”
In March, Demarest oversaw the opening of the El Dorado Hills Senior Day Care Center, a project she’d been working on since 2008 which was tabled when the economy tanked.
“When the economy went south, the whole industry was hurt. Alzheimer’s grants went away state-wide and that was about a third of our budget. With the county’s loss of revenue, we had to cut way, way back,” she said.
Thinking about the people she had to lay off still causes Demarest to tear up.
When the Placerville Senior Day Care program was slated to be cut at the December 2010 El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting, Demarest was overwhelmed by the testimonials given by families and volunteers in support of the program.
Community to the rescue
“The community and the stories of the people using us are what saved us, ” said Demarest.
For $45-58 a day, less than comparable programs in Sacramento, clients receive two snacks, one hot meal, exercise, activities to stimulate their brains, expert care and even pickup and delivery. Care-givers receive a respite and there are support groups and counseling to help them as well.
“Life gets a little better for everyone,” said Demarest. “They start coming to life again and many of them start showing an improvement in their Mini Mental Status Exam — this with a disease (dementia and Alzheimer’s) that doesn’t get better.”
Demarest is now working with a second generation of clients. Having served their parents, she is serving the elderly children of those first clients. Some of the family members have even returned to the Day Center as volunteers after their elderly relatives have passed on.
“That’s what lets me know that we are doing a good job,” said Demarest. ” I love this place. What other job do you get hugged, thanked every day for what you’re doing and told you’re an angel?”
To learn more about the programs at the Senior Day Care Center, 937 Spring St. in Placerville, call Demarest at 530-621-6198.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.