MARYSVILLE, Kan. — During record-breaking winter weather, a bald-face calf named Spuds was born to a Marysville, Kansas farm that also doubles as a memory care facility for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, with many of their residents being retired farmers and ranchers.
Spuds was brought inside from the cold and into the many caring hands of Lighthouse Memory Support residents. As many of our nation’s ranchers battled the brutal weather and worked to save their newborn calves born in the snow and ice, pictures of Spuds alongside residents were shared across Facebook, warming hearts everywhere.
“One farmer loved him, petting and loving on Spuds. While another of our farmers was more practical saying, ‘He needs to go back to his mom, that’s where he needs to be.’ One farmer’s wife exclaimed, ‘What is he doing in the house?’ While others smiled, each had their unique reaction to their ‘normal.’ Overall, it was wonderful, they loved the interaction. It brought up conversations, memories from growing up on the farm, emotions – lots of wonderful things,” said Mandy Becker, co-founder of The Lighthouse.
“You could see the happiness on her face when she interacted with Spuds,” said Valerie Starwalt, whose mom, Joyce, is a resident of the Lighthouse. Joyce worked with the United States Department of Agriculture throughout her career; her passion for agriculture was fueled by growing up on a wheat farm. “Mom’s smile is there with every farm animal. Animals brighten her. I feel that when you’re a nurturer, it stays with you forever. By finding whatever makes [residents] happy, it makes their adjustment into a nursing home 100 times easier. Seeing her with the animals, dogs, cats, calves, sheep and cows, you know those were things she loved, and that love never left.”
With years of experience operating memory support programs and facilitating start-ups on the East Coast, Mandy co-founded The Lighthouse in 2017 alongside her husband and rancher, Trent, to serve the rural farming community of Marysville. While working on the East Coast in New York, she soon realized how important it was to provide a similar living environment to what their residents had left behind. In New York, they worked to mirror high-rise and condo buildings. She knew that the farming community, however, needed open spaces and the nurturing of livestock and the everyday work brought on with farm life. She knew these physical connections to the work could only improve their cognitive capabilities and offer them the peace of a familiar space – sights, sounds and smells.
Mandy explained, “My husband has a gift caring for animals and humans, and he grew up around farming. Our son, Korbin (13), is also a huge part of what we do here. He is every bit as involved in chores, nurturing, corralling and fixing fence. We bought a 5-day-old calf before we were open as a business, and slowly but surely, we’ve been adding animals. We have 30 egg-laying hens, a mini donkey, horse, goat, sheep, and cattle. We also raise our own beef to provide food for our residents; we have two steers in the freezer.”
Mandy explained how the farm and animals “Take it to another level of feeling at home and feeling connected to something” for their residents who have enjoyed a similar view all their lives. She explained how with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the emotional processes in our brain often are not as severely impaired as our thought processes. “The emotional reactions can linger, whether good or bad, so we bring in good moments, bursts of joy, laughter and fun, to create a lingering feeling of safety, home and comfort. Even a negative news story on television can trigger an emotion in their brain. However, we’re unable to process where it came from. There’s not a lot of joy with dementia – it’s a debilitating and devastating disease. And that’s where we come in; we keep everything uplifting and fun because that’s what life is about. We tap into that part of the brain to spend days in a positive light and positive place,” said Mandy.
Spuds isn’t the first farm animal to be welcomed into the doors of the Lighthouse. Buffy, a goat who was rejected by her mom when she had twins, was bottle-fed by some of the residents. She slept inside and frequently jumped up on the kitchen island to sneak an apple from the fruit jar. “It’s just fun, short-lived moments of joy,” Mandy said.
Many residents are still active in the care of livestock, checking water, keeping watch on frozen troughs, feeding and even gathering eggs alongside Mandy’s husband, Trent – living their life just as they did on the farm, just as they did most – if not all – of their lives. Caring for their livestock is an important part of everyday life at The Lighthouse, said Mandy, who continued with, “Ever since we opened the Lighthouse, Valley Vet is the first place we go for our livestock needs and supplies, and the fun things, too. Our donkey even has a ball to play with. It’s our go-to place for the well-being of our animals.”
Planting flowers and gardening is also a popular pastime, in addition to the many farm animals on the property. “We plant, we weed, we pick, cook and eat the produce,” Mandy said. “Just because they have dementia doesn’t mean they can’t have a productive day. It doesn’t mean they can’t have a purpose,” Mandy said, detailing how one of their current residents is 85, and she’s kept up her yard and garden her whole life while “on her knees and hands, she’s a down-in-the-dirt kind of woman and still is.”
“My Dad was a lifelong farmer; he farmed his whole life until the last few years, and now we farm it. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago,” Vonda Copeland said.
The first time that frigid weather struck the Lighthouse, the first thing Vonda’s dad, Arlan, thought of was concern for the cattle. Mandy and Trent bundled him up and drove him to the cattle pen so he could check the water, tank heaters and make sure the water wasn’t freezing. “That atmosphere was bringing back things that he instinctively knew he needed to worry about. When Mandy shared this with me, I just knew he was where he needed to be. I can’t even express how grateful I am that Trent and Mandy built the Lighthouse and had the philosophy they do for my dad to be there. Trent has even taken my dad with him over to the sale barn,” Vonda said.
Mandy hopes that more memory care facilities can provide service to our farming communities, allowing residents to keep their passions alive and their memories continuing to surface for as long as possible.
“It’s home, it’s work, its purpose. When they smell the manure, it’s a familiar smell, just like when they are getting eggs out of the coop, it’s familiar to them. All of these life skills don’t go away with dementia. It’s instinct, and it’s automatic,” Mandy said.