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March 3, 2014
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Teens find meaning by working with seniors with dementia and Alzheimer's

When 17-year-old Justin Garcia throws his backpack over his shoulder and walks off the campus of Nevada Union Tech High School on a typical afternoon, very few of his peers could guess where he’s going.

He heads down the hill on Ridge Road, takes a sharp left on Sierra College Drive, heads up the hill and turns left again into Cascades of Grass Valley, an assisted living facility.

Faces of the elderly with dementia or Alzheimer’s light up when he walks through the door.

“I usually start off by leading them in a sing-along, which helps them retain their memory,” Garcia said. “My grandmother lived to age 98 and I spent a lot of time with her. I feel calm and relaxed when I’m here. It feels good to know I make them happy.”

Garcia is one of five students at NU’s small continuation high school who have opted to gain school credit and “exploratory work experience” by working at Cascades, formerly known as Highgate Senior Living.

While many of the school’s students gain experience in a variety of settings around the county, NU Tech teacher Lori Osmond says something extraordinary has unfolded at Cascades.

“What is most special to me is to watch my students participating with the elderly who have dementia or Alzheimer’s,” said Osmond.

“To see 17- and 18-year-olds playing board games, doing sing-alongs and making collages is what makes my day. I lost my father to dementia just over two years ago, and he loved children, so I know how much this means to the elderly.”

The students received some educational training on the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prior to coming to the facility, said Cascades activity director Heidi Fike, who was pleased to discover that it didn’t deter them.

“This group of seniors can have very unpredictable behavior,” she said. “But the kids just jump right in — they don’t feel inhibited and they’re very responsible. They’re our care partners.”

Seventeen-year-old Melanie Curran says the best part of the experience is hearing the seniors’ interesting stories.

“It feels good to do something that has meaning — my mom is a caregiver who has worked in hospice,” she said.

“These seniors have so much to say if you just stop and listen. Sometimes it’s just about listening.”

Eighteen-year-old Jared Alves agrees.

“I was pretty much raised by my grandmother and great-grandmother, so I know all the old movies stars and musicians, like Frank Sinatra — the seniors here love that,” he said.

“I love walking in here and seeing their faces — the smiles make your day.”

Grant Peters, 18, said he was nervous at first because he hadn’t spent much time with the elderly.

“But now I can just let loose and be with them,” he said. “It’s rewarding knowing I’m helping out and doing something good.”

Osmond says the “linked learning” program at Cascades has far exceeded her expectations, and she considers it a win-win for students and seniors alike.

“It’s amazing to see 17- and 18-year-old young men sitting and reading a book to a little old lady,” she said.

“Others are playing board games listening to stories or leading rhythm games. These kids are so compassionate, I’m blown away.

“I mean, how many teens do you see in a convalescent home? It’s evolved into such a special thing — it brings tears to my eyes.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at or call 530-477-4203.

“These seniors have so much to say if you just stop and listen. Sometimes it’s just about listening.”
Student Melanie Curran

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The Union Updated Mar 3, 2014 11:00PM Published Mar 4, 2014 02:22PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.