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Holiday tour shines light for Marin memory loss group

For Marin seniors with clouded memories, a sunny breakthrough came this week in the form of spectacular and dazzling holiday lights at private homes.

“I’ve always heard of these decorations, but I never got a chance to see them before,” said Herb Roedel, 78, of San Rafael, marveling at the Rombeiros’ Christmas House on Devonshire Drive in Novato. “This is the first time.”

Roedel, accompanied by longtime fishing buddy Tom Manuel of Corte Madera, was one of more than a dozen clients and their caregivers from San Rafael-based nonprofit Senior Access on a special holiday lights tour Wednesday in two Vivalon paratransit buses.

The clients, all dealing with varying stages of memory loss, Alzheimer’s, dementia or related conditions, are part of a daily Bay-Area-fee-based outings program run by Senior Access. The day center, housed in a bright and spacious nonprofits complex on Skyview Terrace, charges $125 per day for the outings or for supervised activities at the facility. Government assistance programs or longterm-care insurance pay for some clients’ participation, which allows their caregivers some much-needed breaks.

“This is perhaps Marin’s best-kept secret in senior day care,” said Denise Merleno of Novato, whose 93-year-old mother, Miriam, has been coming two days a week to Senior Access for the past four years. “When she’s here, I’m able to focus at work, because I don’t have to worry about her here — the staff is so attentive.”

Wednesday’s tour, however, was a special gratis night event organized by Kit Lewis, excursion coordinator at Senior Access, as a “thank you” gift to the members and their families.

Vivalon helps

Staff drivers from Vivalon, the downtown San Rafael active aging center that offers athletic, social and cultural activities and organized trips and transportation for Marin residents over 60, volunteered Wednesday night to take the Senior Access clients on the holiday lights tour. Senior Access has an ongoing contract with Vivalon to provide transportation for clients to and from their homes and on the outings.

“I wanted to give the families a chance to be with each other and do something fun with their families this holiday season,” Lewis said. “With memory loss, sometimes, they don’t get to go out with their families as much as they would like to — and this sort of gives them that opportunity.”

Outings assistant Barbara Millstein of Novato said she knows what the caregivers are going through because she experienced their same situation first-hand when her husband suffered memory loss about six years ago and he became a client at Senior Access.

“He (her husband) found that it was such an amazing place to connect with other clients,” she said.

After he died a few years later, Millstein volunteered at the agency and was then hired on staff.

“My heart is in it,” she said. “I’ve gone through it, and I know what it is to have a smile on someone’s face.”

Lewis said the outings serve many purposes for the clients who are able to participate.

“It helps them to get out, stay mobile and fit and helps stimulate memory,” Lewis said. “It spikes interest — especially if we go to places that reflect (the culture) around their (World War II) era.”

Variety of visits

Recent outings, which typically last from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., have included the Rosie the Riveter Museum, the “Summer of Love” exhibit at the DeYoung Museum and the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco.

“If we can make it there and back by 3 p.m., we’ll do it,” Lewis said.

Pat Derenzo of San Rafael said she drives her husband, Ron Derenzo, 81, to Senior Access three days a week, mostly for outings.

“He was one of the first (to go) when they started the excursion groups,” she said. “In the moment, he appreciates it.”

Derenzo said the program allows her to schedule necessary time for herself after being a full-time caregiver for Ron, who has Alzheimer’s.

“I can drop him off here, and then go from here to get a massage,” she said with a smile.

Similarly, Karin Ludwig of San Anselmo said being able to take her mother, Adele Ludwig, 90, to Senior Access has allowed her to keep working. Ludwig said Adele took the Vivalon bus to Senior Access five days a week for five years, allowing Ludwig to maintain her job at Marin General Hospital.

“If it wasn’t for this place, our lives would be a lot different,” she said. “It was a lifesaver.”

Adele, who is in a wheelchair, is now down to two days a week at Senior Access after moving to a care facility about six months ago, Ludwig said. Edwin Lopez, an assistant at the care facility, accompanied Ludwig and her mother on the tour Wednesday.

Caregiver relief

Bill Kier of San Rafael said his wife, Helen Kier, also has been coming to Senior Access five days a week after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. He said she enjoys it, and it helps give him some relief as a caregiver. Helen does not go on outings, he said, but she enjoys staying at the day center.

Meanwhile, back at the holiday lights tour, Roedel, who is bent over and who shuffles along with a cane, shows off a photo of himself in an old Oakland Raiders uniform in the 1960s, when it was part of the old American Football League.

“I was too small for offensive tackle,” he said.

Active all his life, Roedel said he began coming on the Senior Access outings earlier this year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“A ton of them are pretty good,” he said, gazing at the holiday lights at the Rombeiros’ home. “We even went to John Muir’s house.”

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