Kevin Riordan: An angel to those with Alzheimer's gets her due

Carol Burg visits with Marie Witmeyer at Juniper Village in Williamstown. Burg "brings a lot of heart," says the admissions chief.
Carol Burg visits with Marie Witmeyer at Juniper Village in Williamstown. Burg "brings a lot of heart," says the admissions chief. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: September 23, 2013

Carol Burg loves them all, but all of them would gladly go back to the lives they had before meeting her. Before Alzheimer's.

"They're my angels," she says, voice pure Brooklyn, enthusiasm equally audible. "I love, love, love them."

Burg, 47, is assistant activities director in the Wellspring Memory Care building at Juniper Village, an assisted-living complex in Williamstown.

The Voorhees resident has worked for three years at Wellspring, home to 36 people between the ages of 59 and 99. All have been diagnosed with end-stage dementia and are at risk of "elopement," a genteel euphemism for running away.

"They still have so much to give," Burg says. "And they never met a cookie they didn't like."

In August, the Delaware Valley chapter of the Alzheimer's Association honored Burg for her "dedication . . . commitment . . . and . . . hands-on work with the residents."

To say she loves what she does is as much an understatement as calling dementia care "challenging" work.

The array of activities Burg schedules, organizes, and sometimes conducts - bingo, day trips, art shows (some quite lovely) - can't disguise the reality of Wellspring as a last stop.

As Burg leads me on a tour, many of the patients who are not sleeping seem to enjoy her cheery, kinetic presence.

But as I nod my way past the array of elderly faces, I can't help but mentally paraphrase Bette Davis: End-stage dementia ain't no place for sissies.

The wheelchairs, walkers, confused stares, and fretful wanderings recall for me the last 14 months of my mother's life.

And while Wellspring looks rather like a hotel and seems remarkably odor-free, the surroundings still suggest a melancholy future that, barring advances in treatment or (even better) prevention, may await some of us.

I'm startled out of my reveries by a neatly dressed, youthful-looking woman who walks up to me abruptly. She searches my face, wordlessly asking, Who are you?

She walks away, only to startle me again when she returns minutes later.

"It hits them in the afternoon," Burg says, describing a dementia-related phenomenon known as sundowning.

Waning light seems to trigger rhythms, or reflexes, built up in the years when schools let out, spouses left work, and dinner had to be prepared.

"They all think they need to catch a bus," Burg says. "They all want to go home."

(Memories of my mother again, waiting for the bus that hadn't run in decades, the bus that would take her back to Blackinton.)

"So you join them on the journey," Burg continues. "We try and redirect them, so they're not waiting for the bus."

After hearing a resident talk wistfully about a granddaughter in Malaysia, Burg set up a Skype conversation between the two.

"Carol brings a lot of heart" to the job, observes Sandy Dilks, admissions director.

A trained chef who worked in the corporate travel business for years, Burg says she's always been compassionate and empathetic. She regards the residents as individuals, not abstractions.

"They still have so much to offer," she says.

But some late-stage dementia patients can be unhappy, even bitter (I can't blame them).

"The anger, the paranoia. . . . My mother was frightening," Joan Marie Piazza says.

After a year at Juniper, "she's the gentlest, sweetest person," adds Piazza, 61, a retired pharmacist who lives in Clayton.

She credits the care of people like Burg, who calls what she does "love." I call it a blessing.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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