New ‘Memory Farm’ Offers More Active Style of Dementia Care

When Johanna Jameson began exploring memory care as a research subject for her doctoral dissertation, she returned time and again to gaps in care service, and the difference between physical needs and cognitive ones.

Jameson, a care consultant at Alzheimer’s Association out of their national office in Chicago, recognized that the care industry too often bunched all memory care residents together for adult day programs, despite the fact that many older adults suffering from dementia nonetheless remain physically fit and crave more activity.

She spoke with one woman, for example, who said that her husband with dementia finds purpose in chopping wood and mowing the lawn for a few hours at a time, but that no adult day program for memory care patients can give him that level of physical activity.

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The lightbulb went on for Jameson in 2017 when she and her now-husband John married on an organic farm: this is the setting that can fill the gap in memory care adult day.

This month, Jameson and her husband officially opened Memory Farm in Kaneville, Illinois, about 50 miles west of Chicago. The three-acre property offers opportunities for people in the early stages of dementia to remain physically active and retain a sense of purpose.

Johanna and John Jameson, co-founders of Memory Farm, with their therapy dog Pema. (Photo courtesy of Memory Farm LLC)

“There are a lot of people who grew up on farms, or whose parents grew up on farms, especially people in the rural areas,” Jameson says. “This is just home, so it’s comforting to them.”

Activities include three types of gardening — a flower garden, a vegetable garden and a sensory garden — along with animal therapy, yoga and bright colored toys from the Alzheimer’s Store that engage users via their color, shape, size and malleability.

The animal therapy offering includes opportunities for seniors to interact with miniature goats and a therapy dog, while a picnic area allows for group meals. The property includes:

  • A rehabbed farmhouse from the 1840s where the Jamesons live. The house offers indoor activities for visitors, including a library and a record player.
  • A one-story barn, with a potting shed for potting plants, a feeling fence where people can paint and a bench swing.
  • A three-story barn, formerly a toy factory, which will include horse therapy, art therapy and flower potting once it is fully renovated.

The key to the property is that it is designed for safe wandering, meaning ambulatory visitors do not need aides or other caregivers to accompany them. Two of the three acres are fenced in, all areas within the fence are visible to anyone else standing within the fence, and the land is flat, all contributing to an environment that allows visitors to independently explore.

This is all by design; the Jamesons purchased the farmhouse for $250,000 and spent $150,000 on its remodeling, and then another $150,000-$200,000 to remodel the rest of the property. The property is zoned for residential, business and agricultural uses.

“It’s expensive to get started, like any business, but the model itself is easy to follow,” Jameson says. “A lot of these things are things you can implement in your everyday practice.”

In order to keep the programming personalized — a crucial element of dementia care — Memory Farm can currently serve six people per day, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, with a goal to reach Monday through Friday. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., though early dropoff extends to 6:30 a.m. and late pickup extends to 8:30 p.m. Cost to the visitors is $11 per hour.

Programming at Memory Farm includes animal therapy with miniature goats. (Photo by Jack Silverstein)

The Jamesons met in 2014 when they were both earning a master’s at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Jameson’s degree is in counseling and clinical psychology, while her husband John’s is in organizational psychology.

Rounding out the farm’s permanent staff is Jameson’s mother and director of clinical services, Dr. Debra Fleischman, Ph.D., a professor and clinical neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Jameson also spent time at Rush, working in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center Without Warning group. The Jamesons and Fleischman are assisted by a small group of volunteers.

Though the grand opening was September 15, the farm welcomed a group of nine visitors three days earlier from Monarch Landing Senior Living in nearby Naperville, Illinois. The group spent two and a half hours there, feeding the goats and chickens, doing chair yoga and cutting flowers which they brought back to their residence.

“A few of our residents grew up on a farm, and just to re-live that memory I think was important to them,” says Calli Cantrell, the memory support assisted living director at Monarch and the chaperone on that trip.

Cantrell says that while the memory of the day has already faded for her residents, most came home that day and were energized. Monarch held a family gathering that night, and many of the residents on the trip gushed about it to their loved ones.

“Some residents said, ‘This was the best day that I’ve had in a long time,’” Cantrell says. “They shared that with their families, which was very good.”

Neither Jameson nor Cantrell have heard of any other memory care-centered farms in Illinois. The only other one Jameson knows anywhere is Prairie Farmstead in Overland Park, Kansas, which had its grand opening in May of this year. Because of the opportunities for both sensory and outdoor experiences, bringing farming principles and elements into senior living generally — and memory care in particular — is a growing trend. For instance, Maplewood Senior Living and Aldersgate, a North Carolina life plan community, both have plans to create farms.

“There is a lot of interest in (memory care farms) and people seem excited about it,” Jameson says. “I really hope this inspires people. I think we need to think outside of the box when it comes to dementia care. … I think it would really help improve the quality of life for people living with this disease.”

Written by Jack Silverstein

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