Some people move to upstate South Carolina for a change of scenery, but moving from Alaska to the Upstate can seem like moving to a different world. Caitlin Torrence recently made that move with her husband, but her mission wasn’t primarily concerned with warmer weather or Clemson football. Torrence came to further pursue a passion via Clemson’s Ph.D. in applied health research and evaluation.

In Alaska, Caitlin was a social services program coordinator at the Alaska Pioneer’s Home, a division that focuses on memory care for patients with dementia. The program offers alternative approaches to caring for residents, including a wide variety of events and activities, and promotes intergenerational relationships by having daycare located within the home. This firsthand experience with a successful memory care program inspired Caitlin to pursue further work in the field.

“I was really proud of the work our team was doing,” Torrence said. “It became clear to me very early on that my work with memory care was not a job, but a passion.”

Luckily for Caitlin, her interest in memory care proved to be highly valued in the Upstate. Upon her arrival, she began searching for a program that complemented her interest in Alzheimer’s and dementia research. Before ever applying to Clemson’s applied health research and evaluation program, Caitlin came across the work of Cheryl Dye, professor in Clemson’s public health sciences department and director of the Institute for Engaged Aging.

Dye performs extensive research on the health promotion of older adults. Her research involves the effect of environmental stimuli such as music and images on cognitive ability, engagement and dementia-related behavior among patients with Alzheimer’s. However, her work does not stop at trying to enhance the quality of life for those with dementia. It also focuses on improving the lives of caregivers who spend their time working with these patients.

Caitlin Torrence

Caitlin Torrence said she was attracted to Clemson because of the work of Cheryl Dye.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“I was extremely fortunate to learn about Cheryl’s work in this area,” Torrence said. “From our first meeting, she has been extremely supportive and has provided me with opportunity after opportunity to become involved in this area of work and research.”

Dye’s research led her to develop Golden Corner Respite Care, a three-hour respite program for individuals with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or related disorders. With rates of dementia on the rise in South Carolina, the community embraced Dye’s work as it became evident there was a need for a program that supports these individuals.

The program allows caregivers of those with dementia the opportunity to take time for themselves away from their loved ones, knowing they are in a safe and cognitively stimulating environment surrounded by volunteers who are dedicated to their well-being. Activities include corn hole, ring toss, word games, and arts and crafts. While these games are designed to promote visual and memory stimulation, they also encourage enjoyment and improve quality of life.

Although the program officially began in August, Dye and the respite program asked Torrence if she would hold a summer session in an attempt to build interest in the program while also providing caregivers with a well-deserved break during the summer. Looking to grow her experience in this environment, Caitlin happily obliged.

Torrence Dye

Torrence (left) and Dye (right) help guide the conversation in a special session with caregivers at the Golden Corner Respite program.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“She has been wonderful,” Dye said when asked about Caitlin’s involvement with her program. “I was so impressed because she was so new to Clemson’s program, yet she immediately became involved with the respite program before it was even established. By the summer session, she was basically doing it on her own, and that level of commitment is very impressive.”

Torrence believes that Clemson’s applied health research and evaluation program is proving to be the perfect fit for her career goals. She plans to continue her work with Alzheimer’s and dementia research and to continue to contribute to the Alzheimer’s and dementia community after graduation.

Sadly, as dementia is a progressive disease, this field poses many emotional challenges for all parties. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another dementia is often devastating for patients and family and friends. However, Caitlin finds the resilience and positive attitude of these patients to be the most inspiring part of working in memory care.

“The participants in the program remind me every week that while they are dealing daily with the challenges of their diagnosis, they are strong, resilient, and still present,” Torrence said. “To play a role in providing a positive experience for such wonderful people is a great feeling.”