I recently had the wonderful opportunity to be the keynote presenter at the 4th Annual Toni Finn Cedar Brook Dementia Symposium held at the beautiful Willow Valley Communities in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Along my drive from the Baltimore airport, I encountered Amish carriages, and delighted in the peaceful clip clap of the hooves along the pavement. This sense of wonder and beauty as I traveled through the rolling hills of Lancaster County was amplified when I arrived at the expansive Willow Valley Communities. They are set on some of the most beautiful, pristine landscape I have ever seen, and enhanced by the supportive living design that enabled many residents to be out and about on that crisp fall morning.
On the day of the symposium, I was lucky enough to meet the Finn family, including Toni’s husband Michael. They graciously told me about Toni, and the wonderful care she received when she was living with dementia in Cedar Brook at Willow Valley. Their eyes sparkled when they recalled Toni’s multi-faceted life as a nurse, flight attendant, amazing cook, loving wife, and compassionate mother. They expressed their deep gratitude for the caring staff at Willow Valley, where Toni resided the last two years of her life. Her husband and children were so impressed with the care they wanted to do something that would benefit the staff who were such an integral part of Toni’s life (and theirs). It was this gratitude that inspired the annual Toni Finn Dementia Caregiver Education Program and the Dementia Symposium.
Michael Finn shared the following message about Toni, and about how her legacy endures at Willow Valley:
My wife Toni already had Alzheimer’s when we started looking for a facility for her, and we selected Willow Valley out of more than two dozen that we viewed. My three children and I were impressed by the special environment of care here and we were not disappointed. I was able to keep Toni with me for the first couple of years, but when It became obvious that I could no longer care for her full time, she was moved into Cedar Brook.
We couldn’t have been happier with the care she received there, and the support our family received from the staff. When Toni died after two years, we looked for a way to show our appreciation to the staff and from that emerged the Toni Finn symposium for caregivers. 
The purpose of the symposium, from the very beginning, was to provide an educational forum which would help professional caregivers of all kinds do their job better, and to offer more insight into dementia and the behaviors and challenges caregivers might encounter.  In the four years of the program, we have offered a potpourri of presenters from different disciplines and points of view. The geographical draw of the symposium has expanded, and we find increasing numbers returning again and again.
Although the initial focus was on caregivers within the Willow Valley community, more and more outsiders are finding it appealing and worthwhile.
At the symposium I presented an in-depth session, “Creating Better Lives for Those Living with Dementia”, which included significant education about how to provide person-centered, compensatory care that empowers individuals at all stages of dementia to live a quality life. We had a wonderful audience of over 100 healthcare professionals who work both in and outside of Willow Valley. I was thrilled to be a part of this wonderful annual education event, and I encourage all who live and work in the Lancaster Country area to consider attending in the future.
As I drove away from Willow Valley at the end of my visit, I reflected on my experience. I was so very grateful for my time with Toni’s family, and for learning from them the many reasons why Toni was so beloved, and why her beautiful spirit helped to inspire this educational event. I recalled the many “aha” moments my audience seemed to experience as they learned about the characteristics of the dementia stages and how they can be an instrument for creating better lives, through delivery of person-centered, compensatory care. I was reminded why almost 30 years ago I chose to become an Occupational Therapist and I felt peaceful and fulfilled in my choice.
It seems fitting that the symposium was born from gratitude, and the prevailing feeling I left with was gratitude. Things often end as they begin, and this was a memorable, meaningful event created by compassionate, insightful people.
I am incredibly grateful to Toni Finn for all that she was in her life, and for her inspiration which continues to burn brightly. I am grateful to the Finn family and to the team at Willow Valley Communities for their passion and commitment to make the world a better place for those living with all forms of dementia. This synergy of strangers gathering together around a common mission is rare, and very special. I will never forget being a part of it.