The Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center’s Northwoods Lodge is open.

The dementia care unit held its grand opening and open house Friday afternoon.

VA director Victoria Brahm said the revamped unit was designed as a “therapeutic environment for veterans with dementia.” She said the unit is tailored to assist and treat military veterans with dementia and Alzheimer’s in a “dementia-friendly” atmosphere. One way that’s accomplished is by incorporating Montessori teaching into the unit.

“Children have been doing Montessori for a while now, and in the 1990s they started to use Montessori teaching for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients,” Brahm said. “This is really just kind of a customized, focused on where a patient is at and ... create happy memories and a happy life for whereever they’re at.”

Northwoods Lodge staff is taking a customized approach to working with patients, Brahm said. The unit, which is called a “neighborhood,” includes special rooms and activities. There will be rooms for sensory stimulation and gardening and an aviary.

VA associate chief nurse of extended care Barb Iwanowicz said one way they’re customizing the care to patients is with “hand-in-hand” training, which is seeing who a person is, what makes them who they are and finding ways to help relax and ease their anxiety. She said it gives patients comfort and engages them in living.

“Our social services assistants engage (patients) in game play and role-playing daily life activities that we take for granted,” Iwanowicz said. “They are just tasks that need to be done, but to somebody that lives in this state, it may be extremely soothing or relaxing for them to do something like a cooking activity, folding washcloths, doing laundry. Those aren’t just futile tasks, that’s living. ... We identify what’s important to them, to get them engaged in acting and having as long of a quality life as they possibly can.”

It’s a shift in the traditional model of thinking, Iwanowicz said.

“It is definitely putting the veteran at the center and figuring out how to do what we have to do to keep them safe medically and as healthy as possible, but within their preferences as opposed to ours,” she said. “We’re totally moving away from the institutional approach that we used to have. This truly will be their home.”

Nurse manager Adrienne Baumgart said they encourage Northwoods Lodge patients to appreciate their home by allowing them to be engaged with their environment. They have a kitchen and with supervision that allows them to bake or perform other activities that they have always done.

The facility also has interactive pets that bark and meow like real dogs and cats. Baumgart said many veterans who move from their home often leave pets behind and that the interactive animals ease the transition.

Caryn Ott, an RN who specializes in dementia care at Northwoods Lodge, said caring for people with dementia is close to her heart as her mother had Alzheimer’s. She’s enthusiastic for the changes and is excited to see how patients respond.

“I can’t wait to start getting veterans over here and start working with them,” she said. “Yes, they all have behaviors, but that’s part of their disease process. So we just need to meet them where they are in their process, and we need to slow ourselves down and not take it so fast ... I can’t wait to start slowing it down and having more of a personal relationship with the veterans every day.”

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