They didn’t have the money and they didn’t have much precedence to go on, but staff at the Piatt County Nursing Home saw enough of a need for an Alzheimer’s care unit that they found a way to make it happen 30 years ago.

An open house and Alzheimer Fair to celebrate its first three decades is scheduled for 4 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26.

Named the Halcyon unit – a Greek word used to describe an idyllic time in the past that is remembered as better than today – the wing is still going strong and stands as one of the only nursing home-based skilled care Alzheimer’s care units in the area.

With those credentials, it’s easy to see how forward thinking it was back in 1989.

“We were ahead of the game,” said Marilyn Benedino, the former nursing home administrator who was in charge when the 31-bed Halcyon unit became a reality. “I actually went to Pennsylvania to learn the ins and outs of the care model. We were one of the first facilities anywhere that was doing this.”

Kim Harper was a Halcyon unit coordinator for 17 years, and said as the post-war baby boom population began to age, a new care model was needed.

Especially for the unique needs of those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia issues, some of whom like to wander.

“We were chasing people down the sidewalk and had no way to keep hem contained,” said Harper, who saw the problems arise when she was a nurse. “So it was quite chaotic because as people started living longer and aging more, we were seeing more of those issues. So the unit was a godsend.”

The situation in the late 1980s also caused its share problems indoors, added Benedino.

“The nursing home was full, we had a two-year waiting list. They determined that a third of the residents needed dementia care.

“If you have 30 residents who are wandering and getting upset, it is difficult,” said Benedino.

Enter the idea of a special, secure wing that would serve the needs of dementia patients but keep them separate from the rest of the nursing home population for the safety of all.

The movement started in 1986 with the formation of the Piatt County Nursing Foundation, whose purpose is to accept bequests and gifts and distribute them for nursing home needs. A year later discussions for the Halcyon unit picked up steam, leading to passage of a $600,000 bond referendum to help fund the effort.

Getting voter approval in a drought year was not easy, remembers Benedino

“We did 40 speeches in 30 days in Piatt County towns to pass the bond referendum. It passed by 209 votes, less than 10 votes per precinct. They worked it hard,” she added.

Nursing home officials decided to remodel an existing wing of the 100-bed nursing home to make it more amenable to those with memory care needs. The $600,000 bond issue, plus $200,000 from nursing home reserves, paid for the unit, along with an addition that added 10 rooms, an activity room, cafeteria and other spaces.

A public campaign also brought in $54,000 more to pay for furnishings.

The Halcyon unit opened in July of 1989, and staff have been singing its praises ever since.

“There is so much bonding between the residents and the staff there, that it’s like a mother who bonds with their children. These residents are dependent upon the staff for every little thing in their life. That’s the way a child is,” said Benedino. “It’s just a beautiful relationship that develops between staff and residents.

“What happens is the staff comes so accustomed to what they need. If they provide it, then the resident does whatever they want for them. We don’t have as many upset residents,” she added.

In the beginning, Harper said they expected there to be burnout – research shows it happens within two years – but that the opposite happened with the Halcyon staff.

“None of them wanted to leave,” she said.

Jessica Lasswell has been the unit coordinator the past four years, and feels the step taken by progressive staff members 30 years ago is still paying off.

“It’s great, and it’s definitely needed,’ said Lasswell. “You see a lot of people that are needing dementia care, and skilled care and it does make a difference. Having their own space really helps out the progression of the disease.”

Harper said it takes someone special to work there.

“Over the years, the nurses, and the activity people, and the CNAs, and anybody who’s ever had anything to do with the unit are the kindest, caringest, patient people ever. You have to be a special person to work down there. It’s not for everybody. You have to be thick-skinned, and have patience,” she said.

Nursing Home Administrative Assistant Suzanna Brock hopes the open house will show off successes of the facility, which people tend to ignore until they need it.

“We thought this would be something that could bring a light back to the nursing home, show what we’ve done, what we’ve become,” said Brock, who along with other staff have been working on the anniversary celebration for several months.

Open House

Current Nursing Home Assistant to the Director, Kara Olsen, said the Sept. 26 event will “be kind of an open house style, but (Director) Scott (Porter) will start with an introduction, talk about the history of the unit. We’ll have food, and we’ll have informational booths on several topics.”

Included will be information on caregiving tips, finances, treatment and research, and home safety.

Porter will also announce a proposed plan to modernize the wing.