Arizona students’ spring break stop at Aurora care facility a ‘blessing’

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AURORA | Just because Aurora sits about 1,000 miles from the nearest strip of sandy coastline doesn’t mean that the city is exempt from serving as a desirable spring break destination for college co-eds.

However surprising, Aurora took on the unlikely role of mid-March haven last week as 15 University of Arizona students spent the bulk of their spring break, March 13 to 19, at an Aurora memory care facility learning firsthand about the intricacies and the painful devastation often left in the wake of Alzheimer’s disease.

“This changed us as people and it changed our beliefs,” said Tara Ellis-Vaughn, a University of Arizona senior who helped organize the alternative spring break trip. “There’s not been a trip from the U of A that has ever been like this, and nothing’s been as powerful or as meaningful in my opinion.”

Run through the activism-minded travel organization Break Away, the trip was one of several offered to Arizona students interested in addressing a social issue during their week-long academic respite. The issue attached to the Aurora trip was mental health, which several of the attendees said took on a new meaning after spending time with the inhabitants of Chelsea Place, a memory-specific care facility on East Quincy Avenue.

“When you say mental health, most people think of mood disorders, and this (trip) kind of enlightened me,” said Ana Hubberts, a junior psychology major from Illinois. “Most people don’t think of Alzheimer’s as a mental health condition, but it definitely is.”

Ellis-Vaughn, a senior majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science, molecular and cellular biology and medical sociology, said that the group struggled to find a suitable mental health facility that was willing to host such a large group for a prolonged period of time. But Jenni Dill Seaman, life engagement director at Chelsea Place, said that hosting the young group offered a rare chance for the facility’s 52 residents to interact with a younger demographic and not only receive care, but provide it, too.

“For the elders, it’s really nice for them to get that attention, to share their stories and feel like they’re leaving a legacy,” Dill Seaman said. “One of my big things is that the elders are sometimes just the recipients of care and they don’t have a chance to be the givers of care, but we all need that as human beings. Not just being on one end of that is a big deal.”

The students spent the majority of their days chatting with the seniors at the Aurora facility, gleaning insights into their lives and learning about what it’s like to live with a condition that induces mental degeneration. During their second day volunteering at the facility, students participated in a virtual dementia tour that simulates some of the difficulties for people who suffer from dementia such as loss of eyesight and motor skills.

“The whole time they have inserts in their shoes that simulate peripheral neuropathy; gloves on their hands that alter their fine motor abilities; glasses that simulate macular degeneration; and loud confusing distracting noises in ear phones that sort of mimic that anxiety and confusion,” Dill Seaman said. “I think that built some empathy for what the elders must deal with on a daily basis and understanding those interactions.”

While away from the Aurora facility, the students slept in classrooms attached to the Central Presbyterian Church in Denver.

Fred and Carol Hall, longtime Aurora residents who now reside in a shared room in Chelsea Place, said that they enjoyed visiting with the out-of-state students.

“I think it’s a blessing that they can do what they’re doing,” said Fred.

Fred, 88, and Carol, 85, moved to Chelsea Place last year after a need for increasingly involved in-home care gouged their savings account.

“We’ve got some grouchy ones in here — nothing’s peaches and cream for folks anymore,” Fred said. “And I think (the students) have put some happiness in their hearts.”