Kemper House Assisted Living Facilities Offer Rooms for Couples

Cleveland, February 17, 2008 -- When a person with dementia is moved to a room in a facility, he brings belongings that remind him of his past.

But what may be his most treasured possession -- his spouse -- is left behind.

His wife may choose to remain at home or in another room or apartment in a continuing care retirement community or assisted living facility. But if she wants to live with him, there are very few options. Dr. Jerry Vitek can attest to that.

He spent months last year looking for a place where his parents could live safely together. His father, Frank, 85, was recovering from a stroke and could no longer help care for Gladys, 83, who has moderate dementia.

"They needed more assistance than what was provided in the local assisted living facility they were in," said Vitek, a Cleveland Clinic neurologist who had moved his parents from Minnesota to Ohio. "Honest to God, there was not a day I did not think about them and worry about them," he said. "I wondered if they were sitting alone in their room, if someone was taking care of them, if they were incontinent. And what kind of quality of life they were having."

After a long search that included rejecting one facility that wanted to charge him for two adjacent rooms, he found Kemper House, one of just a few facilities nationwide that offers rooms for couples.

Kemper offers suites for people with Alzheimer's or dementia at its facilities in Strongsville, Olmsted Falls and Mentor. "The spouse, who gets meals and other services, pays as little as $36 a day, with the fee based on whether he or she needs health care," said owner Betty Kemper.

She built the first facility about 10 years ago after spending 16 years caring for her mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer's. In addition to meeting their physical needs by providing safe rooms, open floor plans and secured courtyards, she wanted to address their social needs.

"We could see it was very, very traumatic for people to be separated," said Kemper, a nurse and former administrator at facilities for seniors.

Suites for couples are fairly rare, said Erin Heintz, spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association.

The Alzheimer's Association has undertaken a campaign to improve the quality of care in assisted living and nursing homes and Peter Reed, senior director of programs, praised efforts to offer suites for spouses.

"Offering more specialized services such as suite-style rooms to accommodate spouses increases the range of appropriate options," he said.

The biggest benefit of a spouse living with a person with dementia is the improvement on their quality of life, said Jennifer Nance, Kemper's marketing director.

"The person with Alzheimer's may be calmer having their spouse there, and the independent spouse can enjoy their spouse without the caregiver worries about them wandering or being aggressive," she said. "All the stress is taken away because we do that part and they can focus on what they can do together." Carol Herczeg, 73, ignored her children's advice to remain in her home or move to an assisted-living facility after her husband, John, 81, moved into Kemper House in Olmsted Falls last fall. Instead, she moved in to Kemper in December.

She was a little apprehensive.

"I had been coming at 8 a.m. and spending all day," she said. "But I did not think I would like living here permanently."

But she had made friends with other residents and spouses and had no problem adjusting to not cooking or cleaning. She still does laundry and irons creases in his pants, she said.

And while her car is parked outside, she rarely leaves.

"I love it," she said.

Activities are offered for residents and their spouses and many well spouses have outside activities, said Nance.

"It's your last phase of life -- why not spend it together?" Nance said.

About a handful of the 50 suites in each facility have couples. Other well spouses either decide to stay independent or move in with an adult child, Nance said.

Each room, with several windows, is large enough for a queen-size bed, dining table and two chairs, couch, chair, television and dressers. It has a small sink and refrigerator and a large bathroom.

The Viteks moved into Kemper in Strongsville just before Christmas.

"It's a shame there are not more around the country so people wouldn't have to struggle like I did," Jerry Vitek said.

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