Mattapan day health center's goal: Give elders and disabled a 'purpose'

At an old brown piano, an old man sits. His fingers deliberately strike the keys to a song he learned long ago. To his right, another "client" sings with the voice of someone who doesn't just remember the words but knows them deep in her soul.

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…"

"People help each other here," says Maggie Shea, the program director at the Mattapan Adult Day Health Program. "It gives people purpose. The women call each other sisters."

For twenty-seven years the center has been serving Dorchester and Mattapan residents. With three nurses, a social worker, three activities directors, and an administrative assistant, the staff at the clinic have been working with the elderly and disabled, bringing independence and excitement to their lives. With their success in the community, they have reaped some rewards as well.

Last month, the center, in conjunction with the Boston Medical Center and Trinity Financial, broke ground on a new facility that they hope to move into by the spring of 2008. Although it will be the same size as the present space, it will provide increased privacy for guests to speak with doctors and social workers.

A framed picture from last month's groundbreaking sits on Shea's desk.

"I still pinch myself to see if it is real," Shea said.

Each day the center provides a space for up to 42 'clients,' as the staff refers to their elderly guests. Typically, the center operates just below capacity. Some clients come only a couple days a week; some everyday.

When the clients arrive each morning, nurses go through their files and plan any medication for the day. The rest of the schedule is a combination of group time and free time. Program directors lead group discussions with the elderly ranging from subjects such as the state of the union to the New England Patriots.

Program directors use other time to lead group reflection, where residents have a chance to pray if they choose. Hot lunches are provided along with individual and group singing.

"Everyday is a new day. It's food for the soul when you feel like maybe you've made their days a bit better and kept them out of residential care," Shea said,

Administrators are quick to point out the double benefit of adult day facilities. Because it is not an overnight facility, medical costs to the state and private health care providers are dramatically reduced. The center also provides a sense of rhythm to the clients. When they wake in the morning, they have a destination, friends, activities, and a purpose, which many elderly in residential nursing facilities lose.

"This is the lynchpin between keeping somebody at home and not in a nursing program," Darlene Bowman, the social worker at the center said. "It's a good investment and helps individuals stay independent."

While some clients eventually must move to twenty-four hour facilities, the staff at the center tries to keep their clients as independent as possible. Besides health crises, the dizzying array of bills and health care services are major factors, which lead to the elderly losing their independence. At the center, Bowman works with the clients to ensure that paperwork doesn't overwhelm them.

"I like helping them resolve issues like benefits and services. A lot of the time, they don't know what they are entitled to," said Bowman.

While the center focuses on elderly care, there are some clients, who have either suffered strokes or other debilitating illnesses and are much younger. The oldest client, Ophelia Jackson, will turn 96 in June and has been coming to the center since 2003.

Jackson said she appreciates the friends she has made at the center as well as the time for prayer and song.

"I do the best I can at singing as my voice will let me," Jackson said with a smile.

With a wheelchair that seems more like a throne and a burgundy hat that seems more like a crown, Jackson seems as independent as a queen. It's hard not to think that the staff of the Mattapan Adult Day Health Program doesn't have something to do with that.