Cliff’s Personal Story

Article from “Guide To Retirement Living SourceBook”

Love. Laughter. Joy. These are singularly human experiences—and they are essential to a good life, regardless of age or ability. In fact, individuals who are coping with cognitive or physical disabilities may need these experiences even more. Such is certainly the case with people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory disorders. At Arbor Place, a private assisted living residence offering dementia care in Rockville, Maryland., visitors will see plenty of love, laughter and joy—from the staff members and the residents. Walter Fanburg, M.D., a Geriatric Psychiatrist, founded Arbor Place in 1998 to specialize in serving individuals with all types of memory disorders. The caregiving team receives on-going medical oversight from the Director of Nursing to meet the specific physical needs of each resident, while cognitively engaging residents at their highest level of functioning.

“People with dementia need love and affection. They need to be reassured and comforted,” explained Clifford “Cliff” Cohen, an estate planning and elder law attorney in Washington, D.C., who is also the primary caregiver for his mother, Olive Cohen, a resident at Arbor Place.”

Cliff and his sister, Amy, started noticing that their mother was experiencing some memory problems nearly five years ago. However, she remained strong and active, and the siblings didn’t want to disrupt her independent lifestyle. “My mother played tennis until she was 88 years old,” recalled Cliff. “She was so active, and she was also very strong-willed. Even after we noticed that she was getting more forgetful and more paranoid, we didn’t want to force her out of her home because we thought it would traumatize her.” Instead, Cliff and Amy encouraged their mother’s independence and supported her decision to remain in her long-time home in Massachusetts. However, when Olive’s older sister, who lived nearby, passed away, her Alzheimer’s symptoms became more pronounced. “She called 9-1-1 one day because she thought people were in the house,” said Cliff. “They let her return to the home, but after she called 9-1-1 a second time, we knew that she couldn’t be home alone anymore.” Following those fateful calls, the Cohen family began what became a long and arduous search for an appropriate home for Olive. After a brief stay at an assisted living facility in Massachusetts, she was moved to the dementia wing of a nursing home without prior family authorization. The experience traumatized Olive and left the family desperate for other options. Unfortunately, following two additional moves to assisted living facilities, the family still had not found the right care. “The last place was a beautiful facility with a wonderful outdoor area that had great activities. Unfortunately, once mom was in the dementia unit, she didn’t have access to any of that,” Cliff recalled.

“At this point, it was life or death for my mother. She had been put through enough,” recalled Cliff, who was candid with Dr. Fanburg about his needs and expectations. “He just told me the truth, and he didn’t make promises, but he did explain what they had been able to do with patients like my mother in the past. It was refreshing.”

The family’s negative experience came to head when Olive was sent to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital on a Saturday, but the family wasn’t notified until the following Monday. “They severely breached our trust. They lied to us from the beginning about the type of care they could provide, and now my mother was in a psychiatric ward,” Cliff stated. In desperation, Cliff hired a geriatric care manager in Massachusetts, who was helping him search for other options. “I started to think about moving mom here—to Washington, D.C.—but I worried about how traumatic the move might be,” Cliff recalled. “The case manager reassured me that it could be done and helped work it out with the hospital.”

Once Cliff began searching for communities in the Washington, D.C. region that specialize in caring for Alzheimer’s patients, he located Arbor Place and met Walter Fanburg, M.D. As a Geriatric Psychiatrist, Dr. Fanburg designed and built Arbor Place specifically to create an environment where persons with dementia can experience the highest standard of care and support every day. For the Cohen family, Arbor Place was the lifeline they needed. “At this point, it was life or death for my mother. She had been put through enough,” recalled Cliff, who was candid with Dr. Fanburg about his needs and expectations. “He just told me the truth, and he didn’t make promises, but he did explain what they had been able to do with patients like my mother in the past. It was refreshing.” Olive made the move to Arbor Place Dementia Care nearly two years ago, and the change has been remarkable for the entire family. The caregivers at Arbor Place have been able to get Olive off many of the medications she was taking. She is now stable and is actively engaged in the community’s activities.

For Cliff and Amy, finding a quality community for their mom has given them the peace of mind they desperately needed. “I sleep very well now,” said Cliff. “I didn’t sleep for over a year because I didn’t trust the people who were caring for my Mom. I know she is being well cared for now and living the best life she can.” While the Cohen’s journey to the right community was challenging, it was also educational. “I learned that dementia care is about two things: the quantity and the quality of the caregivers,” Cliff noted. “It’s not about the chandeliers. It’s not about the food. It’s about love and affection and caregivers who really care.”

In addition to maintaining a high caregiver to patient ratio, Arbor Place also focuses on the quality of their team—recruiting and hiring only the most compassionate caregivers. “I don’t know how they find these people, but they really do care about my Mom,” said Cliff. The family’s quest to find quality dementia care certainly left an impression on Cliff. He began his career as a traditional estate planning attorney, but now almost 50 percent of his practice is focused on elder law issues.

“My experiences with my mother have made me passionate about these issues, especially Alzheimer’s, and about this type of practice,” he said. “It’s very different from any other type of law I’ve practiced. Much like taking care of the elderly, representing the elderly requires a caring person who values more than just financial reward.”

At Arbor Place, the caring staff focus on helping the residents live comfortably. Whether they are listening to musicians, enjoying the garden patio and putting green, or dancing and singing, the residents’ faces prove that while their memories may be fading, they still want—and need—memorable moments.