Nicole Donaldson sits in the empty living room of the home she formerly used for her Colwood business Open Hearts Adult Daycare. After two years

Dementia care model in Colwood too far ahead of its time

Unless unexpected source of funding found, vision of a private service to complement crowded public care is not yet financially feasible.

The house is silent and empty now but Nichole Donaldson’s dream is still vividly alive.

Donaldson made headlines for her vision of a new way to care for the elderly as they make the difficult transition from independence to the need for constant care.

Open Hearts Adult Daycare welcomed its first clients to a refurbished home at 647 Kelly Rd. in April 2011.

On June 15, the service closed its doors for the last time and the house was put up for sale.

Unless she can find an unexpected source of funding, Donaldson says her vision of a private service to complement crowded public care is just not financially feasible. Not yet anyway.

“I’m still very passionate about the model of care,” she said, listing off demographic stats to support her case.

Aging Baby Boomers are beginning to suffer from dementia and the population bulge their generation represents has caused concern that public health care can’t keep up.

A primary nurse with 30 years of experience, Donaldson believes groups of people with dementia can get along fine.

“It only takes two people to look after 10 instead of 10 people looking after 10,” she said, explaining why she thinks her model will have to one day replace the labour-intensive model that remains in place. “We won’t be able to sustain that.”

Donaldson, who has worked for two decades at Mount St. Mary in Fairfield, says it’s usually when people are taken out of social situations and isolated that negative behaviours begin to manifest. People need to express themselves and will act out if no one is paying attention to them.

What’s more, Donaldson said, problems arise when people who have been isolated are then reintroduced into a group.

Her idea appears to have worked, judging from the testimony of those who used the service before it shut down.

It just couldn’t compete on costs against public services that are heavily subsidized by the health authority.

“You keep hearing about this growing tide of dementia but I, for the life of me, cannot understand why VIHA would not support her efforts,” said Barb Denney, who used Open Hearts about once per week for respite from caring for her husband.

“My husband continues to be a very difficult guy with his dementia,” Denny said. “Nichole was the only person, of all the resources I tried, who was able to make a connection with my husband.”

While other services she tried felt almost like baby-sitting, Donaldson had the empathy needed to get through to dementia patients.

Her husband is now receiving full time care at Kiwanis Pavillion, where he’s doing well.

Mary Moreau started using Open Hearts for its bath service. Donaldson had converted the home’s entire garage into a comfortable space for elderly clients who needed help bathing.

Moreau was leery of going to a government run facility because of a negative experience she had when her mother needed the service.

“Her bath was not the highlight of her day,” Moreau said. “It was often an ordeal.”

But when she took her dad to Donaldson, his bathing ritual became something he looked forward to every week.

“He was a little nervous,” she said. “But he did want to try it. And when he did try it I’ve never seen a smile so big on his face.”

When Donaldson closed her doors, Moreau says she felt stuck. “Dad would not feel comfortable at all with having a nurse come to the house.”

Donaldson, who had continued to take nursing shifts around her day schedule, helped ease the transition by getting Moreau’s father to use the facility at Mount St. Mary.

And while Moreau was grateful, she thinks the subsidized service might make it too difficult for private alternatives to do business.

Public care is a fraction of the cost — about $5 compared to $40 for private.

The problem is that public facilities are more prone to refuse outsiders during annual routine flu seasons, which can last for months.

“In which case we’re up the creek. We have no option. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

While the original goal of Donaldson was to run Open Hearts without government assistance, she realized that the business model just can’t work without subsidies.

Donaldson said she eventually did approach the Vancouver Island Health Authority with cap in hand.

But when the decision came down that no money would be made available for her, she realized it was time to put her dream on hold before losing everything.

Donaldson, a Licensed Practical Nurse, is continuing to support people with dementia and their families. She offers a companion service.

For more information, call 250-391-9827.

Looking back

To follow her dream of a new model for caring for people with dementia, Nichole Donaldson bought a three-bedroom rancher in Colwood and worked with the city to make sure it met municipal requirements.

After a new zoning category was created for her and bylaws adopted to regulate her one-of-a-kind facility, the home was retrofitted with reinforced floors, fire sprinkler system and other work.

“Because it was the first of its kind it went though lots of municipal process,” Donaldson said.

It was an expensive investment, but Donaldson doesn’t begrudge Colwood.

She says every municipality has its hurdles no matter where she looked at setting up.

– With files from Gazette archives

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