DYNAMIC TRIO: Three of the women who played critical roles in the programs and development of Cornerstone gather to share memories. From left they are Kim Morris who served as Case Manager of 35 years; Andrea Whitney former Activities Coordinator and Roberta Merkle who guided the center through its growth and is now executive vice president of strategic initiatives for Saint Elizabeth Community. (Warwick Beacon photos)
By JOHN HOWELL
Warwick Beacon Article
Pioneer in adult day care celebrates 50th anniversary
Fifty years ago adult day care centers were virtually unheard of.
As the story goes, a TV news story on such a center in Hawaii caught the attention of the late Rev. Bishop Covell, pastor of the Warwick Central Baptist Church. He talked with church leaders and they agreed the Warwick community could use a center.
What the church started has grown into Cornerstone Adult Day, an agency that joined Saint Elizabeth Community in 2009 and is delivering a range of services for the elderly with specialized services for those experiencing early memory loss due to Alzheimer’s.
Thursday evening Cornerstone celebrated the golden anniversary at the center on Warwick Neck with stories from those early years and words of appreciation to those who had the vision and those who carry on this work.
“This was revolutionary 50 years ago. No one was doing this. No one had ever heard of it, no one had thought of it. Some people wondered if Bishop (Covell) was nuts, which wasn’t actually anything new. Some people said it would never work and some people just shook their head,”
- said retired Rev. Patricia Liberty, who as associate pastor worked closely on developing the center, first named the Geriatric Center.
In those early days Rev. Covell accompanied by a parishioner traveled to Detroit to plead their case after their request for funding by the Kresge Foundation was denied. They returned with a $50,000 grant. Readers Digest picked up on the story identifying the center of only one of two in the country. At the time the center with fewer than 25 participants operated from a room in the church basement. Activities included playing checkers, sing-alongs, and socializing. They didn’t even have a van for local trips and to pick up people. Nonetheless, it was a safe place where families could drop off their loved ones knowing they would be watched over.
Merkle sows seeds for growth
Rev. Covell wanted the center to branch out and grow recalled Roberta Merkle in an interview following the celebration. Faced with that assignment, Merkle who came aboard in 1983 realized before making changes she needed to know the community and to build trust. She saw a lot of elderly people with memory loss and realized they required a different space and programs from the rest of the group. The church devoted the upstairs Judson Hall to what eventually became the forerunner to the Cornerstone Adult Day Care Center on Warwick Neck.
At the ceremony, Steven Tilley, chair of the Cornerstone board and emcee talked of his personal relationship with the center and the peace of mind it brought to him and his family. He considered entering his mother in the Warwick Neck center, but opted for longer term care placing her in Saint Elizabeth Assisted Living. He spoke of the dedicated work of staff and Merle’s achievements despite her protests that this was not about her.
Nonetheless, as the story of the center unfolded, Merkle’s role became unescapable.
Rev. Liberty called Merkle “God’s mover and shover” saying she was the right leader at the right time who understood that the church and the center needed to be separated yet connected.
For a period the then Warwick Adult Day Care Center – the name “geriatric “ was dropped – also operated a program out of the Pilgrim Lutheran Church on Warwick Avenue.
Church transformed into center
Rev. Liberty noted that after Merkle became involved with the Alzheimer's Association and the need for dementia specific adult services was defined she and Merkle went for a bike ride on Warwick Neck Avenue. They spotted a run down building that looked like a chicken coop but had a narrow steeple. It was a church and as Merkle learned the next day it was for sale. With some paint and renovations the Church of God became the first dementia specific day care in the state. Merkle recalled the former owners of the property “were trilled to sell to a group that would carry on God’s work.” That property was to later become the site for the Saint Elizabeth Terrace affordable senior housing complex and today’s stand alone Cornerstone Adult Care Center.
While the history of the center was woven throughout the remarks of speakers, the work the staff that dos also carried the spotlight. Former board member Philip Slocum recalled how when at Stop & Shop a shopper spotted him calling him over and declared, ‘You’re the guy.’ At first Slocum had no idea what she was talking about. When it was established she was talking about Cornerstone and the loving care her relative received, Slocum pointed out he was only a board member and the staff was deserving of her accolades. Still she insisted ‘you’re the guy’ and he realized she included him as part of the community that makes for Cornerstone. Then looking around the room he said, “you don’t think you change people’s lives…you’re the guy.”
Matthew Trimble, President and Chief Executive Officer of Saint Elizabeth Community spoke of his predecessor Steven Horowitz and how he expanded the community in terms of opening facilities and leading programs “with nothing but the highest standards.” He turned to the staff standing behind him, thanking them for their commitment.
A Saint Elizabeth Community
On Monday Merkle recalled how she and Horowitz as colleagues for years worked on bringing Cornerstone into the Saint Elizabeth Community in 2009. She said there were talks of mergers with other groups but the fit with Saint Elizabeth came naturally.
“If it’s meant to be it happens, you just know when it clicks,” she said.
Merkle said from personal experience she knows the importance of assisted living and adult care. Her mother Cecilia lived alone until the age of 94 when she went into assisted living.
“When I experienced it first hand,” she said of the stress and challenges of caring for her mother, “it took on a new meaning for me.”
Looking ahead Merkle said she plans on restarting the early memory program and initiating a day support program for people with movement disorders.
Asked about the changes she has witnessed, Merkle observed that adult day care centers are no longer an oddity, but recognized for their role and work and that is part of the 50 year celebration. In addition to the Memory Care Center on Warwick Neck, Saint Elizabeth Adult Day Centers operate in Apponaug, Bristol and South Kingstown.
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