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Putting Some Polish on the Golden Years: Physical Therapy Alumna Beth Cayce

When families decide that private home care is the answer for an elderly relative, they typically brace themselves for a visit to a hospital or faceless office park. So visitors to CaraVita Home Care are surprised to find themselves turning down Mimosa Boulevard in Roswell’s historic district and parking at just a few doors down from Bulloch Hall.

The welcoming, homelike ambience of the CaraVita offices — housed in an 1843 replica of a raised cottage — is no accident, says the company’s founder. Beth Cayce, who earned a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from Georgia State in 1975, says her business is about more than sending caregivers into people’s homes — it’s about bringing families in to share their challenges, interact and learn how to keep a loved one’s dementia from turning into miserable 36-hour days.

“I wanted to create this company so we could serve as a bridge, where we have our professionals with rehab and medical knowledge help train families and caregivers to utilize that knowledge in their homes. We could then be a low-cost alternative if someone couldn’t afford a nurse around the clock but could afford a caregiver to help them,” Cayce says. “It’s all about teaching people that just because someone has dementia or a disability doesn’t mean you can’t interact with them. It just means you have to interact in a different way.”

Caring Therapist, Savvy Businesswoman

When Cayce first came to what was then called the Georgia State School of Allied Health the 1970s, it was one of only two PT programs in the state, the Medical College of Georgia being the other. When she returned 10 years later for graduate studies, she was part of one of the first classes at Georgia State to earn a master’s degree in physical therapy. “I’ve seen the field change to where we’re now offering a doctorate, which I think is fantastic for the profession,” she says. “Continued education is great because it allows you to learn state-of-the-art tools and techniques that only doctors and advanced scientists are able to use. You can give greater access to the public.”

Her graduate studies weren’t focused solely on physical therapy, though. Cayce was enrolled in a dual-track program where she also took classes at the Robinson College of Business, getting insight into the financial aspects of health care. It didn’t take long for that additional expertise to pay off.

“The whole time I was studying, I had a full-time job at North Fulton Hospital, which was a brand-new hospital back then,” she remembers. “When I was in school you had to do a major project for your thesis. The project I did for Georgia State was helping that hospital develop their rehabilitation unit.” That project soon produced an entire handbook on developing rehabilitative therapy programs for seniors, and Cayce drew from that experience when she was brought in to help Piedmont Hospital and Wesley Woods Geriatric Hospital build rehab units of their own.

“None of that would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone to grad school. Georgia State really helped me put it all together,” she says. “I could craft the degree I was going to get. That, I think, is what Georgia State affords, the ability to access different classes — I took accounting, I took marketing, I took finance, so I could begin to see how I’d run my practice if I was going to have a business.”

Cayce adds that her education was not only well-rounded but also, for a working mother, accommodating. “I drove down there four nights a week for five years, because I had a baby in the middle of it, but Georgia State offered the flexibility where you could go for three semesters and then be off for one. If I’d gone someplace else, I would never have been able to do all that.”

‘You Have to Build Relationships’

Today, Cayce is giving back to her alma mater both as a donor — she’s supported the PT department and the scholarship endowment memorializing beloved professor Gordon Seagraves Cummings — and as a teacher, leading Georgia State PT students in interactions with some of the senior citizens CaraVita serves.

“We have such a need in the area of senior care, especially dementia therapy, but when people can see how it can be joyful, fun and meaningful to work with this population, that begins to open their eyes, and that’s what I was able to do with some of those Georgia State students,” she says. “I had multiple students come up to me afterward who said things like, ‘My granddad is in a nursing home, and I wish they were treating him like you treat them at the community where you work.’ That’s the exposure we want for up and coming graduates. This isn’t a population where you walk in and say, ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’ They’re not going to say, ‘Yeah, I want to walk.’ It’s something you have to get them to do naturally. You have to build relationships with them so what do you is natural.”

That educational aspect is equally important for the families of CaraVita’s clients. By employing a full rehab team, from nurses and therapists to social workers, CaraVita can not only craft integrated home care plans that serve a variety of pressing needs, it can also mentor families on interacting with people with dementia and taking the lead in their day-to-day care. The entire basement of CaraVita’s historic Roswell home is dedicated to classroom space for a variety of family and caregiver training opportunities, including the “Virtual Dementia Tour,” created by P.K. Beville, the founder of Atlanta’s Second Wind Dreams organization.

“For eight minutes, the tour allows you to experience in a multisensory fashion what it feels like to have dementia,” Cayce says. “It allows participants to really understand why we’re training them to approach their relatives the way we are.

“The problem with Alzheimer’s and dementia is they’re family diseases, because they affect memory and people interact with each other based on shared memories and events. It doesn’t just impact the person, it impacts the whole family. And what I’ve seen is that they’re silent diseases, they’re hidden diseases. Couples won’t go out as much because they’re embarrassed that their loved ones wouldn’t act appropriately in a restaurant. If you don’t know how to prompt and cue someone, it’s just easier to let them stay home and sit.”

Dementia is also a condition more families are dealing with than ever before. Past the age of 85, Cayce says, there’s a 50 percent chance of someone experiencing some kind of dementia — an unfortunate side effect of Americans living longer — and a third of all seniors will die with it. Yet the amount of money spent on dementia research is still a tiny fraction of that spent investigating diseases such as cancer. And many students in the health professions remain reluctant to take up the emotional challenge of dealing with patients near the ends of their lives.

For Cayce, though, the rewards far outweigh the hardships — and she’s enthusiastic about sharing them with future Georgia State graduates.

“Recently we offered a brand-new thing called Friendship Club for people who have mild to moderate dementia, where their family members can enroll them for three hours. We do exercises and cognitive tasks with them, and we have a socialization component too. I’ve had people tell me, ‘This is the first time I’ve had this much laughter and joy in such a long time,’” Cayce says. “To me, that’s being able to take all your professional ability and use it where it’s really needed.”