'A whole day off': Free adult day programs are as much for the caregiver as for the frail

Alberta funds thousands of day spaces for frail adults across the province. But many families struggling to cope have no clue, says this program manager.

Get your loved one on the waiting list before a crisis, suggests one program manager

Participant Keith McColl dances with health-care aide Shirley Wan at Bow View Manor. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Reach out. Don't wait too long.

If Kristen Ingram-Cotton can share one warning with families trying to manage an older adult's declining health at home, she says that's it.

Ingram-Cotton runs a day program for dementia patients and other adults at Bow View Manor in Calgary. But the wait list can be months long.

"I get referrals for people … and at that point they're in crisis mode, especially with dementia. There's a caregiver who is really not managing anymore," she said.

"That's really sad. They get prioritized and we try to get them in as fast as possible, but to avoid the crisis point, get (your loved one) in beforehand — that would be my advice."

"Give it a try."

Alberta Health Services says it funds 3,274 spaces in programs like this across the province, with roughly 80 per cent run under contract by various non-profits and other service providers.

Clients get referred through Home Care, and Ingram-Cotton says the shared waiting list can be even longer for specialty offerings such as the Chinese, Indo-Canadian or young-onset dementia programs.

And this is before Alberta sees an expected surge in aging seniors needing help as the baby boomer generation ages. 

These day programs give family caregivers an entire day off, which can be really valuable, says manager Kristen Ingram-Cotton. (Mike Symington/CBC)

This February, the CBC team in Alberta has been hearing from many family caregivers, several of whom flagged adult day programs as key to their ability to continue caring for a loved one at home. We set out to learn more.

Free, with optional lunch

The Brenda Strafford Foundation's program is on the main floor of the Bow View Manor, on the north bank of the Bow River. Families drop off a loved one in the morning. Others, living on their own, show up by cab and other transportation.

They come for up to two days a week, giving them a chance to socialize outside the home and challenge themselves with mini-golf, exercise and crafts. It's free, with an optional $10 a day for the lunch.

Ingram-Cotton says challenging the brain like that slows the progression of disease in the older adult. But these programs can be just as important for the family caregiver.

"They care for that person 24/7 and it can be a lot of work," she said. "An adult day program is unique in that it's a whole day off. To have a whole day's break is really valuable."

The social aspect of coffee time with peers can challenge and strengthen the brain. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Ingram-Cotton's program returned to in-person meetings last July, requiring rapid tests and proof of vaccination for any visitors. They have two programs, one for older adults with dementia and a second wellness program for those whose cognitive abilities are stronger.

Mini-golf, singing and card games

Many of the dementia folk were chatty on a recent Tuesday, drinking coffee and eating muffins. Then staff moved the chairs into a large circle for sitting exercises. Mini-golf and a singing program were scheduled for the afternoon. 

Keith McColl, 82, retired after a career as a cargo supervisor with the airlines.

Amir Jessani worked at Tip Top Tailors for years and now challenges his memory at a publicly funded adult day program. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

"I like to be with people and do things together, get to know them and they're like friends," he said, happily chatting about the program while admitting his short-term memory loss means he can't remember much of what happens. 

He slipped back into the meeting room after the interview and immediately started dancing with a health-care aide.

Down the hall, Amir Jessani was playing Memory, challenging himself to find card matches faster than his peers in the wellness program. He moved to Calgary in 1975 and worked at Tip Top Tailors for years before he retired.

He lives on his own and attends this program to get out of his condo.

"I'm very young at heart. I feel like I'm still in my 40s, maybe my 50s, you know? But I'm 78 years old," Jessani said.

Society has a hesitation around aging.

"But for me, it's not difficult because I'm open-minded. I take whatever I get offered," he said. "I didn't know about aging before. But you have to take it as it comes."

The CBC team in Alberta is focusing this month on family caregivers — the husbands, wives, children and others who take on care of loved ones. Visit to read more.


Elise Stolte


Elise Stolte has 15 years of experience telling the stories of her community and has been recognized for feature writing, social-impact and community-based journalism. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal and joined CBC Calgary last year. You can reach her at


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