Cantor Sol Mitgang with Cathy Byrne at L'Chaim, an innovative social adult day care initiative for Holocaust survivors at the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC. UJA funds the initiative.

Four Questions for Cathy Byrne

People with dementia or cognitive impairment lose their short-term memory but retain their long-term memory. Very often they have a renewed focus on childhood experiences. This poses a special challenge for Holocaust survivors with cognitive impairments because their earlier lives are filled with traumatic memories.

To meet this challenge, the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC in Cedarhurst created L’Chaim, an innovative social adult day care initiative. The program, funded by UJA, is dedicated to helping survivors connect to meaningful experiences and avoid re-traumatization. L’Chaim is based on a Montessori approach for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

We talked to Cathy Byrne, a gerontologist and RN who is associate executive director for older adults and special needs at Gural JCC, to learn more about L’Chaim.

Q) The Montessori approach is best known as an educational model for children. How does this approach work with aging Holocaust survivors?
A)The goal of successfully engaging with the world is the same in both the teaching and caregiving models. The tools to meet that goal vary. People with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease don’t often get to make their own decisions. At L’Chaim, each survivor is given a choice of activities. We offer sensory experiences like Yiddish songs, cooking, art therapy, and games to stimulate all the senses. This approach allows us to meet each person’s unique needs and helps survivors to reconnect with happier moments from their past and feel joy.

Q) How does caring for survivors with dementia differ from treating older adults with dementia?
A) Caring for Holocaust survivors with dementia is complicated. A survivor’s early life history of trauma, deprivation, confinement, and displacement can make it difficult to elicit and maintain their trust. Dementia or cognitive impairment can make trust issues even more challenging. We’re acutely aware of triggers that evoke difficult behavior and secondary trauma.

Q) Does L’Chaim use any specific approach to help heal trauma?
A)We use methods to distract and refocus a survivor’s attention. And we educate everyone who is in contact with a survivor to be sensitive to trigger points. We’re like a protective screen for the survivor. Education and sensitivity are crucial elements to use.

Q) What are the benefits of the program?
A)We’ve created a safe and nurturing environment that offers Holocaust survivors a loving and family-like atmosphere. Our holistic approach includes music, hugs, and emphasizing survivors’ strengths while being aware of their weaknesses, so we care for survivors with dignity. Our communal meals allow acceptance and opportunities to decrease social isolation and engage with the Jewish world. We hold simplified discussions about the weekly Torah section and chant the blessings over bread and food. All of this helps us foster an environment for survivors who have memory loss to experience joy.