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Yuma Tribe Partners with Private Firm to Build a New Kind of Alzheimer's Center

16 million baby boomers are expected to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by 2050.  Communities will bear the burden of caring for and housing these people.  In Yuma, a Native American tribe has partnered with a private group to try something different—a self-contained "dementia village." 

Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports…

A 199 thousand square-foot building sits abandoned and empty in the middle of the city.  “If you walked out as we’re walking through this, the broken glass and the ceiling tile and the litter,” Gary Magrino with the Cocopah Indian Tribe gestures within the vacant space,you have to imagine that these are trees and we’re on a road.  And over to our left and on our right, is an apartment building.

This cavernous structure is the vessel for a big idea: The Veteran’s Neurological Research Center, a four-acre indoor village, modeled after the 1950s to remind the center’s elderly patients of home.  The caregivers would be disguised as postal workers, grocers and other vintage village-goers. 

Magrino says it’s an idea that could work anywhere.  The design even calls for a synthetic ceiling that simulates the sky at sundown and sunset, transitions in the day that can be stressful for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

Eighteen months ago, Medical Management Group or MMG, a private group specializing in low-income housing and skilled nursing facilities, devised an idea to turn this structure into a unique kind of Alzheimer’s center. 

“On the Alzheimer’s side, we’re doing 300 patients,” says Richard Neault, the CEO of Medical Management Group.  Neault says the center would house more than just Alzheimer’s patients; plans include a section for patients with Traumatic Brain Injuries and a special area for military victims of sexual trauma.  “The rest of the facility is 240 apartments for families with TBI and then we’re doing 30 units for MST, which is Military Sexual Trauma.”

Dementia patients would wear armbands that monitor their activity and health.  MMG and the Cocopah believe they can collect and sell that data to researchers studying Alzheimer’s.  Dr. Marwan Sabbaugh, an Alzheimer’s expert with Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, says there is definitely a demand for more research—especially as doctors learn more about how Alzheimer’s progresses.

“By the time people get the symptomatic phase—meaning the dementia phase—of the Alzheimer’s disease, they have had changes in their brain developing for up to more than twenty-five years,” Dr. Sabbaugh explains, “So, the dementia, in essence, is the end of the disease, not the beginning of it. ”

Richard Neault says there are benefits to housing patients of Traumatic Brain Injuries (or TBIs) on the same campus as patients with Alzheimer’s.  TBIs are linked to early dementia.  Neault hopes to collect brain scans of Alzheimer’s and TBI patients to find a “common denominator” in the search for a cure.  And Dr. Sabbaugh says while that is a logical approach, he is skeptical. “Because clinical research is very, very regulated, we don’t tend to co-mingle research activities with clinical care activities,” he says. “In theory, it could happen down the road.  In practice, we’re not sure.”

The building has been empty since 2007.  This was one of the largest Kmarts in the nation, built just before the company closed many of its stores.  The Cocopah tribe purchased the property in 2008 for about 9 million dollars, but the real estate crash soon followed.

MMG purchased the property for about half what the tribe paid for it.  That sounds like a loss, but Cocopah Tribal Council member Deal Begay says the 1800 tribal members may still see a return on their original investment.  A deal with MMG gives them 30 percent of revenue from VNRC, but also 30 percent of the risk if it fails.  

“It was something that we thought—Hey! This could help our people in the long run," says Begay. "We thought about the future of employment—and not only our tribe. We knew that this would help the whole area.”

Neault estimates the center would employ more than 400 people, many from the tribe and around Yuma County, a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. 

But MMG and the Cocopah tribe need 50 million dollars for the project.  They think they can get it through municipal bond financing and low-income housing tax credits.  If they can get the funding, Veteran’s Neurological Research Center would open sometime in 2018.