Hanac program pierces darkness of Alzheimer’s

They toss a ball with the vigor and passion of someone a fraction their age, and then laugh unabashedly…

By Dustin Brown

The senior citizens who pass their days at the Hanac Social Adult Day Program in Astoria are the kind of grandparents any child would love to have.

They toss a ball with the vigor and passion of someone a fraction their age, and then laugh unabashedly when the beach ball leaps from their fingers and bounces off the crown of someone’s head. They tell stories about growing up overseas and relish simple foods such as thin slices of banana.

But the six men and women enrolled in the Hanac program are living beneath a mental shadow that clouds their memory and severely limits their ability to function.

The Hanac day program’s clients suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Many are “starting a new day every 15 minutes,” said Nancy Hendley, the program’s director, which means they typically do not remember whether they just ate or took a nap.

Since it opened March 13 on the lower level of the Federation of Hellenic Societies building at 22-51 29th St., the center has been hosting seniors four days a week for five-hour sessions between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., with door-to-door transportation service provided by a private van. For many, the sojourn has turned into the highlight of their days.

“It’s helped him tremendously,” said Connie, a Jackson Heights resident whose 79-year-old husband Dan is a client of the day program. She asked that their last name not be used. “I am so happy that he’s so pleased, and it gives me a break. He looks forward to going to the center.”

The daily activities planned for the seniors at Hanac are projects they could easily be doing alongside their children, such as painting pictures, creating art projects, assembling puzzles and playing catch.

But the comparison with children is something Hendley avoids, because it trivializes the complexity of their disease and obscures the vital fact that all of the center’s clients already have led productive, fascinating lives. They just can’t remember much of them.

“Although it looks childlike — we have simple puzzles, we have simple games — for me, it’s about enjoying a day and stimulating them as much as possible and bringing out what’s best in them,” said Hendley, a 42-year-old artist who lives in Astoria just a few blocks from the center.

The activities they perform also are critical to maintaining their mental and physical acuity, affording them a chance to ward off the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s.

“If they don’t use the skills they have, they lose them at this point,” Hendley said. “If they sit and watch TV, it all just goes out.”

Hendley came to head the program almost by accident. Originally from Ohio, she moved to New York two decades ago to pursue her artistic career and eventually began freelancing as a teacher for senior programs run by Hanac, a citywide nonprofit organization founded three decades ago in Astoria.

Although she had no experience leading such a center, her supervisor at Hanac decided to hand the project off to her last autumn after seeing how well she worked with senior citizens.

“I had to learn on my feet,” Hendley said.

She has built the program from the ground up since she assumed her post late last year, establishing in a matter of months a center that already has been accredited by the city Department for the Aging. Although it is a job that requires “more patience than a human being has,” the effort ultimately yields rewards not only for the seniors she serves but also for her and the two other staff members.

“I feel lucky to be able to give what I have at this point,” Hendley said. “I get paid to really sharpen my spiritual life, that’s how I figure it.”

Hendley likens her job to that of a detective: She seeks out a way to tap into the minds of her clients, to find a way for them to communicate with others and thus escape the sense of isolation created by their condition.

“These people, they’ve all had lives and they can’t communicate anymore,” Hendley said. “They’re frustrated, it’s difficult for them.”

One client who used to visit the center had been a ballroom dancer in his youth. Although his mind was failing him, through dance he could still shine and retain a link to his earlier years.

“I would always dance with him, and for the moment we were dancing together, you could feel him — he was communicating,” Hendley said. “You couldn’t have a conversation with him, but you could have a dance.”

For more information about the Hanac Adult Day Program, call 728-0586.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.