The chalkboard sign reads “Beautiful Place.” Holding it in steady hands, 96-year-old Charles Franklin gives a half-smile as he poses for a photograph. The sign’s words describe his thoughts about a program that he participates in several days a week.

His words and photo have joined with those of others to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Adult Day Services, a Virginia Tech program for older adults. Together the images compose an exhibit that Ila Schepisi, director of Adult Day Services and an advanced instructor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, created to showcase the center’s quarter-century of existence.

With funding from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Adult Day Services opened in Wallace Hall on Dec. 14, 1992. For 15 of those 25 years, Schepisi, her team of licensed practitioners, and more than a thousand Virginia Tech students have provided eldercare in a friendly and stimulating environment.

“The adult day field has long been called the best kept secret in long-term care,” Schepisi said. “Yet the rise of adult day as a viable option for eldercare is growing as many assisted-living facilities move to private pay.”

For many families, the expense of assisted living facilities or in-home caregiving to allow older loved ones to remain independent is not feasible. Enter Adult Day Services, a Virginia Department of Social Services–licensed care facility. The program, open on weekdays, serves an average of 18 participants per day; most are over the age of 80. With a full-time registered nurse on staff to help oversee individualized service plans, the center is able to provide long-term care for those with medical needs.

“Adult day is a good fit for people who want to stay in their home as long as possible,” Schepisi said. “That’s why our tagline is ‘Keeping families together.’ We try to help participants remain part of the community as long as possible, to provide a higher quality of life for all involved.”

Community building starts with preschoolers in the Child Development Center for Learning and Research. Adult Day Services opened in collaboration with the center to facilitate intergenerational activities in a program called Neighbors Growing Together.

The children and the older adults socialize while doing crafts and playing games. Schepisi said the activities help the adults reconnect and even mentor the younger generation. The program also serves as a role model for other adult day service providers, as it has been designated a Generations United Program of Distinction.

This combined effort provides Virginia Tech students with valuable learning experiences, which may include field study, internships, or part-time employment. Students also have research opportunities with faculty in the Department of Human Development and Family Science; research topics have included college student attitudes toward older adults; the benefits of reminiscence, horticulture, and modified Montessori activities; and knowledge sharing across generations.

Adult Day Services trains students to communicate and integrate programming with the participants to keep them actively engaged. With 135 students completing service hours in 2017, at any given time, they provide companionship to the older generation. Together they drink coffee, play games, garden, discuss the day’s news, and listen to music. Although this interaction is genuine, it is also intentional.

“We’re very thoughtful about the environment we create,” Schepisi said. “We aren’t just engaging the participants in activities; we’re also training students to be observant about individual needs.”

The students learn to identify when participants are becoming uncomfortable or upset and to modify the situation before issues arise. For instance, a quiet room that was designed to allow participants to find sanctuary when they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed is rarely needed for that purpose. Instead, therapists use the space, with its soft glowing lights, to help with sensory stimulation to evoke positive feelings.

For the students, the experience of working on the Adult Day Services team may even be transcendent. Although some may arrive with fears about interacting with older adults, all students gain a greater understanding of what it means to work with the aging population. Often, they change career trajectories as they learn to assist with personal care, health monitoring, meals, therapeutic activities, and dementia care.

“Every day each person shows up with a positive outlook and seeks to create the best possible environment for every participant and their family,” wrote Joshua Owens of Front Royal, Virginia, a senior majoring in biology and psychology and a certified nursing assistant, in a testimonial featured in the exhibit. “My time [at the center] has facilitated my growth as a person by challenging me to be an active, patient, and empathetic learner.”

The 25th Birthday Exhibition will be displayed in the Wallace Hall Gallery at 295 West Campus Drive in Blacksburg through Jan. 18.

Written and photographed by Leslie King