Alzheimer staff 'loved on' patient like he was family, daughter notes

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

VAN BUREN, Ark. (Christian Examiner) – The daughter of an 87-year-old patient at "Memory Lane," one of Arkansas' nine locked and secure Alzheimer's facilities, told the pastor her father's home has already far exceeded her expectations.

The Memory Lane Alzheimer's Special Care Unit at Van Buren First Assembly of God is part of the church's Legacy Heights Retirement Center. State officials say Memory Lane is the best Alzheimer's care facility in Arkansas, and one of the best in the nation. | Photos courtesy of MEMORY LANE

Noting the care of the workers who daily perform their jobs with "passion and skill, the woman said people "loved on him as if they knew him as we did."

"It demonstrated to us there were people outside our family with the expertise, compassion and willingness to shower love on my father," she wrote.

A church's plan to help others as it helped itself has evolved into what state officials say is the best Alzheimer's facility in the state, and one of the best in the nation.

Always alert to the need to minister to people in its community, Van Buren First Assembly of God in the early 1990s discussed adding an independent assisted living facility on its 12-acre property near downtown.

"You get what you want by helping other people get what they need," said Bobby Johnson, pastor for the last 34 years at the church where about 600 people participate in Sunday morning worship. "I had seen across the country the benefit of a retirement center to a church and to its community, and thought it would be a good fit for us."

But it wasn't until 2007 that the church's vision became reality, after an assisted living facility about two miles from the church offered its expertise to help it get started.

"It has 75 apartments," Johnson said. "We were intending on it helping us financially." But the local economy tanked and "the church had to help fund Legacy Heights. ... At the time, we didn't know what we were going to do."

A local physician suggested turning one-half wing of the three-story facility into an Alzheimer's unit. By spending another $25,000 on renovations that would make the wing safe and secure for Alzheimer's patients, 20 rooms were converted and almost immediately, all 30 beds (some rooms have two beds) were full.

"People have come here from 20 states and three foreign countries," the pastor said.

But what with construction costs for Legacy Heights and for a new worship center for Van Buren First Assembly of God, and an unhealthy economy, the church was struggling.

A friend offered a $1 million matching grant; the church managed to raise $950,000. A year later, a foundation offered a $5 million grant if the church would build a stand-alone Alzheimer's facility also on the church's property.

"We just completed it and had the dedication Nov.13; now we're going through the process of getting people in," Johnson said. "If we can fill half, it will break even, and from then on be profitable for missions and ministries."

The 34,000-square foot one-story facility is joined at the front entrance with the 60,000-square-foot, three-story Legacy Heights Retirement Center and is across a parking lot from the Van Buren First Assembly of God worship center and educational complex.

The Alzheimer's unit consists of two side-by-side 'pods,' each with 20 rooms, a common room for meals, movies and activities, plus an outdoor walking track and garden, all locked for the safety and security of its residents.

"There is no facility like it in the nation," Johnson said. It is staffed with an administrator, director of nursing, therapeutic program director, an LPN, unit coordinator, combination of certified nurse assistants and nurse assistants as well as universal staff, with a minimum of one nurse and two direct-care staff onsite 24 hours a day. Also available on an on-call basis is a medical director, pharmacist and neurologist.

Among its therapeutic and social programs are gross motor activities such as exercising, dancing, gardening and cooking; self-care activities such as dressing, personal hygiene and grooming; social activities such as games, music and socialization; and sensory enhancement activities such as reminiscing, scent and tactile stimulation.

"Our facility is second to none," Johnson said. "It's absolutely beautiful and we thank God for that, and our staff is prettier, sweeter, kinder and better than the facility."

Its website – – says, "We embrace the memories of years gone by, while creating a wonderful quality of life for today."

Part of the $5 million grant by the foundation, which asked to remain anonymous, is allocated for start-up costs until Memory Lane Alzheimer's Care Center becomes self-sustaining. Another part of the grant is to renovate Legacy Heights Retirement Center back to its original purpose.

"Retirement centers and Alzheimer's facilities are the coming thing," Johnson said. "The senior population is growing tremendously, and with the Alzheimer's unit, one out of eight people aged 65 and older have dementia, and one out of two for those 85-plus. I think pastors who want to be on the cutting edge with their community and area need to look into it."