I don’t often get excited by reading nursing-home press releases, but recently I did. One story from the Ambassador in Scarsdale left me, well, farklempt. It was about a wedding that took place in the dementia unit there.

Read the press release at: http://www.theambassadorscarsdale.com/senior-living/ny/white-plains/news-and-events?article=wedding-bells-at-the-ambassador-of-scarsdale

I absolutely had to meet the people involved. 

It’s not my intention to make my blog into an advertising space for one or another senior living facility. But I am here to help spread knowledge of best practices in the spiritual care of people with dementia. In this respect, there’s a lot being done at the Ambassador deserving notice.

I was welcomed at the door of the Ambassador’s Memory Care Community by its Director, Sarah Rourke. As she took me on a tour through the Community, I noticed that the living space for people with dementia occupied the complex’s most central spot, the ground floor, which surrounds a well-maintained but unfussy courtyard garden—not a bad venue, I thought, for a small wedding. The garden itself is visible from all sides through floor-to-ceiling windows. Almost all the Community’s residents could see and hear it, if not from the courtyard itself, then from their own apartment windows. I wondered how the idea of a wedding came to be in the first place. 

“It wasn’t our idea at all,” Rourke explained. “It was the groom’s suggestion. When Mack Kronberg and his bride, Jessie Appel, were looking for a place to get married, she kept finding things wrong with each of them. Then she realized what was really going on: she was regretting that her grandmother, Marianne Reilly, who lives in the Memory Care Community, wouldn’t be able to travel to join them. That’s when Mack proposed to Jessie for a second time: ‘If we can’t bring your grandma to the wedding, let’s bring the wedding to her.’ While the wedding wasn’t our idea, we couldn’t have been more on board, and got busy brainstorming with the residents on different ways the whole community could participate in order to make the the day even more special for the couple.”

Since childhood, Jessie had dreamed of a wedding at her grandmother’s home in Shelter Island, which she had visited every holiday until Mrs. Reilly’s move to the Ambassador. Suddenly Jessie realized that it wasn’t about the house. “Grandma has been the constant, and that’s carried on,” she said. “When we visited… and passed the courtyard, this powerful image took hold of us standing there saying our vows amid the flowers and greenery and this strong community that has accepted my grandmother and us – with open arms.”

Marianne Reilly, Jessie’s mother and Mrs. Reilly’s daughter, agrees. “I find this ceremony and this place to be sacred because they celebrate life as it is now,” she says. “We’re all in this together.” Mrs. Reilly even presented presented the newlyweds with a homemade book of marital advice from the residents.

Holding a wedding in a dementia unit doesn’t happen without buy-in from the facility’s management team. The Ambassador’s president, Jean Dunphy, didn’t merely tolerate the request, but embraced it. So did Ms. Rourke and Kerry Mills, founder of of Engaging Alzheimer’s, LLC, and a dementia coach for The Ambassador’s Memory Care Community.

Ms. Dunphy joined Ms. Rourke and Ms. Mills and me on my visit and spoke of the holistic vision of family in the age of Alzheimer’s. “I’m an Irish immigrant. I grew up in a village where we had grandparents around. We had people with dementia but it didn’t matter,” Ms. Dunphy explained. “They fit in. If they ended up in your kitchen one day, you didn’t call the police. You treat them like family. She’s there, you give her something to eat, you bring her home afterwards. It was a community in action. It was a natural human reaction. And there was no stigma attached to it.” 

Dunphy’s recollection of her village childhood made me realize that the space around me had a village aspect to it. We were meeting not in some quiet and remote corporate office, but rather in an open commons. Music drifted in from a program around the corner; the people who live there were strolling by, sometimes interjecting comments into our conversation. They were not butting in, interrupting or eavesdropping – they were participating.

In a village, boundaries between people and their classes and categories are blurred. And that’s the whole point about memory care residences, according to Dunphy: “You’ll see a retired CEO who suddenly connects with the guy living here who was a mailman. I don’t want to say that we’re naked. But there certainly are no preconceived notions of class. What matters is the person in his or her most basic form.”

Dementia’s ability to erode the difference between “our people” and “theirs” means not only new friendships but, in effect, new families. “There was one resident here who thought another was her mother,” Ms. Dunphy explained. “Well, that was fabulous. Who gets to have their mother back at seventy-eight or eighty? And so we did not dissuade her from that thought. So that’s the norm. Different families—not your biological families—are made. Strong, strong connections.”

And that connection is what weddings are about, too. The bringing together of different families to celebrate the strong bonds that love brings.