Woman’s Calling Is Improving Dementia Care

Rachael Wonderlin is passionate about helping people with dementia and their caregivers.

Rachael Wonderlin is passionate about helping people with dementia and their caregivers.

From her childhood home in South Jersey, Rachael Wonderlin ’11 marked university catalogs like a Christmas wish list. The colleges the high schooler liked best went in a must-see file.

“I visited a whole bunch of schools,” Wonderlin said. But the moment she stepped foot on the University of Mary Washington campus, “I just had a gut feeling. I loved it immediately. It had everything I was looking for – small but not too small. It was very collegiate, very beautiful,” and it was just a few hours drive from home.

Wonderlin came to Mary Washington with a love for older adults – she discovered this as a teen volunteer at a skilled nursing facility – so she majored in psychology with plans to become a geriatric doctor. But after getting a C in chemistry, she figured she wouldn’t have the grades for medical school.

An elective course called “psychology of aging” erased any disappointment Wonderlin felt. The class met for an entire evening once a week. “Everybody in that class dreaded it. I loved it,” she said. “Never in my life was I so excited to go to a class for three hours.”

When an intimidated Wonderlin had to explain to Associate Professor of Psychology Debra Steckler, then the department chair, why she wanted to major in psychology, the student blurted out, “I’d like to work with older adults.”

Steckler stopped, put her pencil down, and looked at her. “Really?” Wonderlin recalled Steckler saying. “That’s really interesting.” So Wonderlin gained an ally and became known as the person who worked with old people.

After graduating from UMW, Wonderlin got a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Wonderlin settled in Pittsburgh, where she was a program manager, organizing activities for people with dementia. “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I was finally doing what I needed to do with my life. I didn’t look back.”

That’s when she started to write a blog on dementia care that ultimately turned into a book deal. Johns Hopkins University Press published When Someone You Know Is Living in a Dementia Care Community: Words to Say and Things to Do. She is planning a second book on activities for people with dementia.

These days, Wonderlin is a consultant, putting into practice what she’s learned about people with dementia, including redesigning institutional facilities to look more like the places from patients’ pre-dementia lives: a soda counter with a music player; a five-and-dime nursing station; and life-skills stations, perhaps a nursery with dolls, a vanity with hats and scarves, or a bait-and-tackle shop. She brings in art, arranges outdoor seating areas, and incorporates aromatherapy.

“A lot of my work is based off this theory of normalcy,” she said. “People are happier and healthier when they live the life they’re comfortable with.”

Wonderlin returns to UMW once or twice a semester to teach psychology of aging – the subject she credits with putting her on her life’s track. It’s also where she performed with the Undeniably Adjacent improv comedy team, a hobby she continues to this day.

“Mary Washington is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” Wonderlin said. “I bleed Mary Washington. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves UMW more than me.”

– Kristin Davis

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