Older adults have always been Hannah McCarren’s best friends, starting with her grandmother. She even shares a tattoo with some older women who are close friends, and the tattoos were their idea. That affinity for elders is why she recently joined Marjorie P. Lee, becoming its memory support household coordinator, after earning her master’s degree in gerontological studies from Miami University.
Here’s a Q&A with a young professional who loves talking with the older adults she works with every day.
Welcome, Hannah McCarren
You earned your master’s degree in gerontological studies in May from Miami University. What was your undergraduate major?
Hannah: Gerontology also, with a minor in art therapy, also at Miami.
Do they still do the green beer days around St. Patrick’s Day as much as they did decades ago?
Yes. I’ve never actually participated in a green beer day. My freshman year, which would have been the first green beer day, was actually my interview at Episcopal Retirement Services for the internship that I did in 2018. I didn’t even know green beer day was happening, and my mom sent me a text, “Be safe today,” and I was like, “Why?”
Did your mom go to Miami?
No, she’s a professor at the University of Cincinnati, so she knows kind of what happens. I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom.” She goes, “Oh, stop kidding.” And I said, “No.” I had my interview, and then I had choir practice. So I didn’t even know this was happening. And since then, I’ve always had something that day, so I never did it.
What is your title?
My title is memory support household coordinator.
And which household is that?
It’s three, really. I have Kirby, Luther, and Morris. Those are the three that are memory support. So I have all of them.
Describe your role at Marjorie P. Lee.
The main purpose of my role is advocacy and supervision. I am the main point of contact for families. I’m also the supervisor for the resident assistants. And I interact with the residents on a daily basis. So I get to operate as everybody’s voice. If staff is having issues or they need to be heard, I get to do that. And if residents need to be heard, I get to do that. And if a family needs to be heard, I get to do that as well. So I get to operate as the sole person to help people get what they need here in memory support.
That’s a priority for ERS. The emphasis is that residents can voice concerns that they have. The same with families. It seems like that’s a lot like what a social worker does.
Kind of. This is why Shannon Braun, the director of ERS’ Center for Memory Support & Inclusion, and I are always in conversation because she has a lot of background in working with people with dementia. And obviously, she’s been working longer than I have. So not only does her position at ERS lend itself to being a helpful resource to my position, but also, just as a colleague and another professional woman, she acts like a mentor to me.
Tell me about your experience before starting here.
I had been in school for five years. I did my undergrad in three and then a two-year master’s program. My first internship in the field was with ERS back in 2018, after my freshman year at school. It was split between Marjorie P. Lee and the Deupree Cottages. So I got to do both, and I loved it. I worked with Debbie MacLean (director of life enrichment) when I was here at Marjorie P. Lee and DD Farmer (household coordinator at Deupree Cottages) when I was at the Cottages. And then, I volunteered as part of a threshold choir at school. That’s a choir that sings to people on the threshold of life and death in hospice. We’d sing once a week. I’ve also worked as a home health aide during breaks. And I had an internship with a non-profit called We Thrive Together, which provides online activities for older adults in their homes. And I also have done some work with K’vod Connect, a program out of the JCC (Jewish Community Center), for Jewish older adults.
What first inspired you to pursue a career in older adult care?
I was the only one in my class at Miami to enter college as a declared gerontology major, if you can believe it because Miami’s so big. Usually, it’s a major that people find, in their sophomore year or the second half of their freshman year, when they take a class, and they find it.
"These are three of my best friends. Sharen, Carol, and Jan. Carol and Jan are sisters. They’ve known me since I was probably 4. The four of us have matching tattoos. It was their idea, not mine."
What’s the tattoo?
It’s a circle with mountains, trees, and coordinates of a place in Kentucky where we go and do art with adults with disabilities. Sharen led it. She’s an art therapist at We Care Arts in Dayton, and we’re all friends. They go to the same church my mom attends, Resurrection Lutheran in Lebanon. So they’ve known me for a long time.
My first best friend was my grandma, Barbara McCarren. She passed away when I was 14 (about ten years ago) from Frontotemporal Dementia. The closest people in my life have always been older adults, and when I looked at what I wanted to do for school, my mom had heard of the program, and she encouraged me to visit Miami and talk to one of the professors in the program. I did, and I was interested in the classes that would be offered. I had considered something like sociology or social work or something like that. I felt gerontology provided me with all of the things I would get in those degrees while being able to focus on older adults, which is where I’ve always had an affinity. And I never looked back.
Describe your grandmother.
Strong. She would take me antiquing in the summers. I grew up on a farm, and they lived on a farm down the way. My mom and Dad both worked so we would go to their house. She was an RN, and she taught nursing. She was diagnosed in her 50s and passed away in her early 60s when I was 14.
What are the most common signs that it’s time for a family to consider memory care for an aging loved one?
That’s a tough question. One of the big things we tell many families is that two things are valid at the same time when your loved one has dementia. One is that nobody can tell you exactly what’s going to happen because everybody’s process is different – faster, slower, and other symptoms – and there are so many different types of dementia. So, on the one hand, nobody can tell you what will happen. And on the other hand, there are many things that are very common. Sometimes, that can be a mixed message. We’re telling you we can’t say what’s going to happen, but when you tell us something that is happening, we’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s pretty common of somebody with dementia.” Some things arise that can be concerning and off-putting, and it helps to be reassured that, for example, “That’s OK. That happens.”
A big question, if you’re thinking about whether or not your loved one needs to be moved, is: Are they safe where they are? Are you capable – physically, emotionally, mentally – of providing the care that would make them safe? And if the answer to one or both of those is no – no, they’re not safe, or no, I can’t take this on for whatever reason – then I would recommend that you consider memory care because it matters on both ends. Caregiving is emotionally draining, and you want the best for your loved one. And you can’t give the best to your loved one if you’re emotionally drained. And you can’t maintain the loving relationship you once had – or the relationship you want to have – if that’s what you have to do with them all the time. And if they’re unsafe in their environment, then whether that’s moving in with you or moving somewhere else, that’s a big one. That’s a significant factor: whether they’re safe in their environment. And I would say that’s a big reason many people do move is that they feel their loved one is no longer safe on their own or no longer safe in the physical environment they’re in.
Marjorie P. Lee is known for creating a home-like atmosphere for its residents. How is this atmosphere accomplished?
Well, when you walked in, you walked past an activity. That is making peach cobbler. And I think the only places I’ve ever baked peach cobbler are with my grandma or my mom. To me, things like that are what make it feel like home. Yeah, when they move in, they’re allowed to paint their apartments whatever they want helps because we can decorate their physical environment to match where they’re coming from and what they like – and create that physical home-like feel. But you hear this all the time: Home is where the heart is. And home means something more than just your physical dwelling. So providing them with things where they get to make peach cobbler, or if they want something, we provide that for them. Our staff is willing to sit and listen to them, hear what their needs are, or provide them with companionship. That’s part of why I love my job. I come in in the morning, and many of my residents, know who I am. They say hi, and they talk to me, and I talk to them. It’s comfortable.
What are the 7 Activities That We Use to Engage Our Memory Care Residents? These stimulating tasks may help to slow memory loss.
MPL Memory Care team members Megan Greatorex and Hannah McCarren.
In your experience, what are the benefits of living in a household setting, and how does it improve residents’ quality of life?
I think it helps with isolation. I think we’ve all learned from the pandemic that isolation – no matter how old or extroverted or introverted you are – can be detrimental. And there’s a lot of research on isolation increasing with age and when somebody has dementia or some cognitive decline, or even physical decline. You’re at risk of isolation because you cannot socialize in the same way. So it puts you at risk of isolation, which can be detrimental to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. And when you live in a household – whether in your apartment, as we have at MPL, or in your room, like at Deupree Cottages, unless you try hard, you’re not going to be in complete isolation. Staff is going to be checking on you, making sure you’re OK – doing so within a reasonable amount that doesn’t invade your personal space, but still, we know you’re OK, and we’re encouraging you to come to things. And then, when you walk out of your apartment, there are people for you to interact with. We have residents who have become fast and close friends. They go into each other’s apartments and hang out throughout the day when we don’t have activities. And that’s not something that – mainly due to their dementia – that they would be able to do if this weren’t that kind of environment. In some places, they wouldn’t be allowed to do that. And if they were possibly living at home or on their own, they couldn’t walk down the hallway and into their friends’ apartments safely.
And then, with all the activities we provide, it’s a way to congregate and do this together. Some don’t feel safe leaving; for some, it’s not safe for them to go. But they can all participate in the things we do because we bring it to them.
How do families find the right fit at Marjorie P. Lee?
It’s on a case-by-case basis and up to the family. Not all our apartments are the same. We have many different floor plans and sizes and things like that. Some of it has to do with the availability of apartments. So it’s what’s available and what the family wants. Do they want a studio or a one-bedroom? If so, what floor plans? Some of them wish for a large space, and some like smaller places. And then cultural fit as well. We do many things together on floors 4 and 5. It’s pretty interactive. The nature of dementia is that sometimes it impacts personality, so as people change, the culture changes. It’s up to the families and what they’re comfortable with.
What do you like most about your role at Marjorie P. Lee?
I like comforting people. I feel a lot of purpose and fulfillment being able to answer a family’s question, remind them and assure them that their loved one is being looked after and cared for, and give them somebody that they can trust and feel that has their loved one’s interests at heart, and being able to provide that comfort to residents as well. It’s the moments in my day when I can sit with an upset resident, listen to them, and talk to them. That’s why I do what I do.
Because you can make a difference for them?
I feel like I make a difference, and I think older adults – especially people with dementia – are really not sure how to communicate. Their minds are not working in a linear fashion. They’re not working in a typical manner. And that can be very difficult for people, especially their loved ones, to continue communicating. There once was a very loving and strong bond between mother and daughter, some of which can be impacted in not-so-positive ways by dementia, and you can’t have the same conversations. But I know these people as they are now, and I can have the same conversation with them every five minutes. I can sit and listen to them when they’re upset and things like that in a way their families can’t. I still care and can sit in an emotional space with them, but it’s not the same as when you’re looking at your mom, grandma, or somebody. So I can do things for them that sometimes their family can’t – but they want to.”
If there was one tip you could give to people about how to communicate, what would it be?
Don’t try to force the direction of the conversation. Their brains are processing differently, but they’re still processing. They’re still aware of their environment, just in a different way than we are. So listening to the feeling in their voice and the look on their face when they’re talking to you about something, that’s the conversation you’re having. You’re not having a conversation about their striped pants. You’re having a conversation about whether or not they’re upset, or whether or not they’re happy, or something like that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m excited to be here. I’m glad that I get to start my career in a position where I’m excited to come to work every day – or at least I don’t dread it when I’m not feeling so excited about it. And I don’t think that everyone can say that. I think many people go into their first jobs, reminding themselves every day that it’s their first job. It’s your first job, and it’s OK if you don’t like it. But I get to go to my first job and enjoy myself quite thoroughly and know that I’m in the right place.
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