Awareness in action: Vaya team supports caregivers, communities

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About 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer's nationwide, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which sponsors Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month each June. That includes more than 170,000 in North Carolina.

Rebecca arrived at the assisted living facility in Lenoir with Alzheimer’s disease and few clues about her past. She lashed out at staff who tried to convince her to take a bath or change her clothes. No family came to visit.  

Rebecca – not her real name – grew depressed. Her caregivers grew frustrated. 

Vaya Geriatric Team Clinician Amy Penley (left) meets with Lyn Mikeal, Executive Director of The Berkeley in Morganton.

That’s when Lyn Mikeal, the facility’s Activities Director at the time, brought in what is now Vaya Health’s Geriatric and Adult Mental Health Specialty Team. “When everybody came out of the training that day, it was kind of like we’d all had that ‘aha’ moment – so this is what we need to try or need to do,” Mikeal said. “It was the best feeling.” 

 Staff developed a connection with Rebecca. Her mood and cooperation improved. They bought her clothes, even a hat she liked to wear. They succeeded, bit by bit, in improving Rebecca’s quality of life and reducing stress on themselves.  

A state-funded program embedded within Vaya’s Complex Care Management Department, the Geriatric Team covers Vaya’s catchment area and five additional counties to the east. The 12-member team includes registered nurses, licensed clinicians and qualified mental health professionals who offer free, on-site education and support for professional staff, family caregivers, organizations and community members.  

Mikeal, now Executive Director at The Berkeley in Morganton, has worked with the team at five facilities over 16 years. Course topics address mental health issues, substance use, dementia, psychiatric medications and caregiving itself.  

“We get a lot of feedback about linkage to other services and supports and how it’s changed the course of life for people,” said clinician Terry Spencer, a team supervisor, noting that caregiving frequently happens in isolation. “People are often unaware of the impact that caregiving is having on them. A lot of times, we see they’ll take greater ownership of their own care and make self-care a greater priority.” 

The team increasingly holds classes at public places such as senior centers, libraries and government agencies to help reach a larger, diverse group of caregivers and other people who work with older adults, said team clinician Amy Penley. 

“As a therapist, I’m all about evoking change, increasing awareness and helping people to move forward from any place they feel they might be stuck, and that drives me,” Penley said. “Because it’s possible. It’s difficult sometimes, but every training or presentation someone goes to, every bit of counseling someone participates in, I think they get a little something that might help them. 

“It has a domino effect,” she said. “We like to think we’re bettering society in our endeavors.” 

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