Kevin Stiner | September 14, 2023

Empowering Dementia Caregivers

Ann Marie Cook ’88 utilizes skills acquired at Brockport to lead Lifespan and a virtual reality program designed to provide respite for caregivers.

Lifespan virtual reality dementia respite demonstration.

As President and CEO of Lifespan, Ann Marie Cook ’88 says there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t rely on the skills she gained from her Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) program which have led to numerous SUNY Brockport collaborations focused on caregiving for adults.

“Everything I learned in my Master’s program I still use all these years later,” Cook said. “That Master’s program was exactly what I needed to get to my current position and to think things through. I loved it.”

Lifespan is a non-profit organization that specializes in providing and connecting older adults and caregivers with appropriate services. Lifespan is currently collaborating with Professor of Social Work Jason Dauenhauer ’96, who oversees the Lifelong Learning course auditing program. The partnership is looking to evaluate the efficiency of using virtual reality (VR) to give respite to family caregivers supporting people with dementia.

Virtual reality with professor Jason Dauenhauer.

Professor Jason Dauenhauer (second from left) at the virtual reality demonstration.

Lifespan Division Leader Katy Allen believes providing breaks for dementia caregivers is crucial for rejuvenation and extends quality care.

“I think that our goal is really to provide that respite to caregivers,” said Allen. “And to provide joy to people that are struggling with a really tough disease.”

Allen described a promising moment from the early phases of the program when an English man suffering from aphasia and early-stage dementia used the VR glasses.

“He has not been able to go home to England for many years, so he put on the virtual reality glasses, and they took him to England,” Allen said. “He was pointing to buildings. He was so excited and so engaged. It was very powerful to see the reaction from someone who doesn’t react this way.”

Perhaps the most telling sign was the man’s wife went out of her way to bring her husband to another VR session in a different part of town to let him experience it again.

Lifespan virtual reality caregiver respite.

One example of the various programs you can utilize during the virtual reality caregiver respite.

Lifespan is always seeking volunteers and individuals looking to utilize their services and Cook made it her goal to ensure they were heard.

“We measure how many live calls we can get, and how many people had to leave a message,” Cook said. “What I want is for every person that calls here to get a live person and if Lifespan can’t solve your problem, we will get you to a warm handoff to where you need to go. Now people can email us, they can chat us, they can text us, they can do all of that, but what we still find that for most people they just want to talk to a live person when they’re that frustrated.”

Cook has directed Lifespan for more than 25 years. In her time as President and CEO the organization’s budget has grown tenfold to more than $18+ million, and the workforce has more than tripled in size to 150+ full- and part-time employees.