Loving Arms Adult Day Care Means the World to Families with Few Options
When an aging parent or grandparent can no longer think clearly, and you’re struggling just to help them get through the day, a little business on Wyandotte Street can change everything. It’s happened over and over again since Loving Arms Adult Day Care first opened in Martin City 12 years ago. So many people have been helped that it’s hard to count them all.
“I’m not exactly sure but it’s well into the hundreds,” says career nurse and Loving Arms’ founder Debbie Hartsell. “12 years is a long time, and we have so much to show for our work.”
If you’re torn between trying to hold down a job while caring for an aging loved one at the same time, a nursing home may seem like the only answer. But that’s not always the case, even when dementia is involved. Professional day care may also be an option. The problem is, you may not know about it.
“When it becomes unsafe to leave a loved one alone at home during the day, families typically turn to nursing homes. I’ve worked in nursing homes. I believe that many people living there don’t need to be there. We can take care of them here instead. People just don’t know adult day cares exist. We have a very low profile, unfortunately. You wouldn’t believe how many referral calls we get from people who say, ‘I didn’t even know something like this was out there.’”
Alzheimer’s is probably your first thought when it comes to dementia, but there are several other brain diseases that can also weaken the ability to remember, speak, understand, problem-solve, and carry out other key mental functions. Any of them can interfere with daily life and create a heavy burden on families.
Some families can afford to personally provide care round the clock at home. Others get to a point where care becomes so complicated and difficult that a nursing home is the only alternative. In between those two scenarios, adult day care can be a perfect fit.
“When someone joins Loving Arms, my goal is to keep them enrolled for life and never turn them over to a nursing home,” says Hartsell with determination. “That’s not always possible, but I know what I’m doing and my program can go a long way in stimulating their minds and bodies to keep their health manageable, both here and at home.”
When we popped in on Loving Arms, the first thing we noticed was a feeling of community. Two dozen people were at the facility that day, and you couldn’t help but pick up on the connection they shared. No one was sitting alone unattended. No one was parked in front of a television by themselves, just passing the hours. The group was animated, enjoying each other’s company, and exploring activities together. Not all of them were elderly. Some were younger, with Down Syndrome. Others were blind, and even those with severely limited cognitive capacities seemed to find comfort.
“We’re not set up for severely disabled people, but we’ll happily handle a wide spectrum of challenges short of that,” says Hartsell, as cheers erupt behind us from a group game. “There’s a lot of diversity, but never harassment or embarrassment. We’re very strict about that. Every single person here has a need, so we are all the same in that respect. No one’s better than someone else. We’re a community.”
Hartsell has a special place in her heart for aging military veterans. She would love to wrap Loving Arms around as many of them as possible.
“Only a few Veterans Administration facilities in the area provide day care, and they’re mainly north of the river, so I really try to step up. Older veterans tend to be forgotten, long after their service is complete. But these people have truly sacrificed and we can’t lose touch with that. They are amazing, and deserve so much respect for what they’ve been through and why they went through it. We had a vet with us at age 102, and he had so many experiences to share with all of us. We were honored to care for him.”
Loving Arms is as much about customizing individual care as it is about cultivating community. Each of Hartsell’s clients has their own needs and their own ways of doing things. Hartsell seems to commit every idiosyncrasy to memory, adjusting her approach to each person as she moves through the facility.
“They may all have the same basic diagnosis, but each person here is different. You can’t take a cookie cutter approach to caring for them. You have to connect with each one separately. That requires a lot, I mean a lot of experience. And that’s my specialty.”
The ideal candidate for enrollment at Lovings Arm Adult Day Care is in the early stages of dementia. That’s when Hartsell’s program can make the biggest, long-term impact. “Sometimes I get people who are already in end stage dementia and it’s just too much responsibility. For example, this is not a locked down facility. I can’t have people trying to get out and wander around. If I can get them early, I can get them into routines which brings them comfort, peace, and happiness. That’s what it’s all about.”
‘Routine’ is a word you hear constantly around here. Hartsell says safety comes first at Loving Arms, and an emphasis on routine is a close second. Knowing what to expect from moment to moment calms easily confused minds and enhances stability. Hartsell’s small staff works hard to help everyone stick to schedules throughout the day, from the time they arrive to the time they leave. The staff isn’t forceful or even pushy, only encouraging, as they relentlessly coach and offer gentle support in other ways.
“Alright Mister Warren, you’re next,” says Hartsell across the room as one of her favorites picks up a plastic bowling ball and approaches the pins. “Show ‘em what you’ve got. You can do it!”
Look around at the smiles and take in the sound of the laughter, and you’ll wonder what life would be like if these people were somewhere else.
“They’d probably be stuck in a nursing home with little stimulation and a bleak outlook,” says Hartsell, reflecting on her long, previous experience working inside nursing homes. She certainly acknowledges that there are reputable nursing homes doing good things. But she worries about the others. “I hate to think about wonderful people like the ones we care for, just sitting — day in and day out — as their minds wind down.”
You don’t just sit at Loving Arms. You engage your world, celebrate common ground, enjoy relationships, and find purpose in just being alive. “We’ve been in business more than a decade, and several of my clients have been with us most of that time. I’m just so happy I can give them a quality life.”
A Dedicated Nurse from the Start
Debbie Hartsell works extremely hard. That’s just how she’s wired. Her husband, son, and grandson help her run the business, but there’s no denying she’s the engine that powers it all. Her weekdays are filled with juggling meetings, guiding her program, tackling endless administrative paperwork, and driving — lots of driving. Hartsell is up before dawn to personally drive clients to Loving Arms and then back home again five days a week. 12 hour work days are her personal standard. Then, on Saturdays, she grocery shops and prepares meals at the facility for the coming week.
“I live in Archie, Missouri and I pick up clients daily from Belton and as far away as Lee’s Summit and Independence. I provide a hot breakfast and lunch plus an afternoon snack each day. Each client has their own dietary restrictions, so I make everything myself. I’m very careful about that.”
Every career nurse is driven by compassion, but Hartsell’s heart seems especially big. Her resume over four decades boggles your mind. Dialysis nurse, medical and Alzheimer’s unit manager, psychiatric facility assistant director, geriatric and Alzheimer’s certifications, Parkinson’s activism, the list goes on. She knows CPR, how to handle tube fittings and IVs, and can field just about any medical emergency you throw at her. “There’s nothing at this point that I haven’t seen before.” When you boil it all down, she amounts to a champion of anyone in her care.
“Patient advocacy drives everything I do,” says Hartsell, hands resting on the shoulders of the Vietnam vet sitting in front of her. “It’s what makes me tick and ties all of my healthcare skills together. I live for looking out for patients’ best interests and building healthy physical, emotional, and mental environments.”
She’s been married 38 years, has three children, seven grandchildren, and twin great-grandchildren. Sunday is her one day off, and it’s time well spent resting on a farm in rural Missouri. “I love country life. It renews me, and it’s the ideal place for time with my family.”
The Perfect Space for a New Mission in Martin City
Most adult day cares are inside nursing homes. Loving Arms is among very few that stand alone and specialize only in adult day care. Hartsell’s experience working in nursing homes gave her a clear view of what they do well and not so well. That’s how she came up with the idea for Loving Arms. Then she needed to find the right place to create it.
She looked around for months before discovering her current location on Wyandotte Street in Martin City. The large, wide open interior of a former flooring company was perfect for her intentions and her clients. “The place was screaming, ‘I’ve got everything you need!’” says Hartsell, gazing across the space, remembering the first time she saw it. “It was just right.” She also loves her landlord, and was especially impressed when he offered to allow her to connect the empty space next door too.
“Lots of rooms, hallways, and doors are not ideal for dementia patients. It’s very confusing and they get lost. Open space is best, and here we have enough space to also dedicate areas for specific purposes.”
The biggest area is for group activities ranging from conversation and games to live musical entertainment twice a week. It’s also the main space for exercise. “Much of our exercise activity consists of sitting activities, but we actually have a track around the perimeter for walking, too. Exercise is critical. Otherwise, muscles will weaken, joints will freeze, and clients won’t be able to walk anymore. Our goal is to keep them out of the wheelchair as long as possible.”
Mental and physical stimulation also helps clients sleep better at night which can be a game changer for families at home. “Dementia tends to get days and nights backwards. People can easily nap through the day and then be up all night, keeping their families up, too.”
Another large area of the facility is dedicated to serving the meals Hartsell prepares. There’s also a lounge area and a business office where Hartsell routinely steals short stretches of time to pay bills, send invoices, and maintain licensing.
At the end of every highly structured day, full of healthy activities that flow in succession like clockwork, Hartsell loads clients back up in company vans and begins the three-hour trip back to all their homes. The sun is setting and will soon rise again, lighting another long day that makes a dramatic difference.
“I am motivated by the feeling that I really am making a difference. I’ve been asked to speak at funerals and I hear from families of clients who have passed. I love that I still hear from families years later. On Christmas eve last year, I was contacted by a woman whose dad was with us until he passed seven years ago. She says she still thinks about me because she honestly believes our work allowed her dad to not only live a quality life, but live much longer than he would have otherwise. That’s just one of three families I heard from that same day.”
Debbie Hartsell has been through so much. You can tell. As the years pile up, she remains tough, persistent, and diligent as ever while tackling the myriad of responsibilities around the adult day care program she created. She is a selfless survivor of difficult economics, running a business in one of the hardest industries. She doesn’t do it to get rich. She does it to solve real human problems, and that makes her a true symbol of entrepreneurship at its best.
Thank you, Debbie, for delivering precious care to our veterans, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and adding to the heart and soul of our neighborhood. Here’s to many more years of working wonders over on Wyandotte Street.