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Packard sees strong future for Oaklawn Center on Aging

by Brandon Smith | December 19, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Kathy Packard. File photo by The Sentinel-Record

Now about to enter her 13th year as executive director of the Oaklawn Center on Aging, Kathy Packard sees nothing but bigger and better things to come.

Packard, who has been with the nonprofit program since its beginning in 2009, says she can't ever see herself doing anything else. Originally from El Dorado, Packard has worked in geriatrics for over 30 years, helping older adults with physical rehab, hospice care, and much, much more. In fact, on her wall in her office, one can find a drawing of downtown El Dorado.

"I was the education director at South Arkansas Center on Aging through UAMS (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and then moved up here, but that was given to me from one our participants in our programs," she said. "A very nice lady. When she found out I was going to move up to Hot Springs and take on the role of education director here and get this one started, she gave me that for my office."

Always having a passion for working with the elderly, upon graduating from the University of Arkansas and receiving two master's degrees from Southern Arkansas University, Packard, as a licensed professional counselor with a specialty in gerontology, began her career and would add numerous other certifications and licenses to further equip in her path to making a difference in people's lives. Though headquartered at the center's location on Carpenter Dam Road, she and her team spends much of their time out in the community providing education on Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other kinds of chronic conditions -- touching about 18,000 lives a year. She even teaches Tai Chi and neural plasticity classes.

The Oaklawn Center on Aging, a program funded through the Oaklawn Foundation, is one dedicated to improving the lives of older adults and caregivers in the Garland County area. The group did not start as a nonprofit group, as it was first a satellite office of the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. As the importance of geriatric care and services continue to increase, as does the 65-and-older age population, the demand for providing those distinct, specialized services to Garland County senior residents has increased, as well. The center offers a wide variety of educational programs to help them and their families live healthy and vibrant lives, while answering questions to eliminate the guessing game. Packard said by the time the center became a nonprofit and funded by the Oaklawn Foundation, they have "really blossomed and flourished" ever since.

"You know, when you have somebody that doesn't know how to navigate the Medicare system, and because of our ability to be the resource center here, people will call and say, 'How do we do this?' 'What do I do?' 'I've lost my Medicare card.' 'I don't know how to sign up for Medicare Part D.' 'I didn't even know I needed to sign up for this for Medicare.' 'I'm going to be 65.' It's those little things that, because we've been, you know, involved in Medicare and involved in what people need to do to age well, we have that experience behind us and it's so nice when people come in and say, 'I could not have done that myself. I'm so glad you're here. Thank you so much for your help.' To me, it's always those little things. I don't know, since I was 18, I've always wanted to help older people and now I'm an older person. And I see how beneficial it is for people to have a place to go to ask questions and to navigate through the rest of their life, which could be kind of confusing to try to get through. It could be stressful. We offer a place for them to come find some answers, and it just makes you feel good when you help somebody. I don't know how else to say it," she said.

It is how the center works with other nonprofits and area aging centers, Packard noted, that helps them help older adults maintain as much independence as possible, while enhancing their quality, as well.

"It just makes me feel good to know that one person got to stay in their house and they didn't have to go to a long-term care setting," she said. "Or if they did have to go, we help them ask the right questions to find a good place for that loved one."

In the wide variety of separate services it provides, the Oaklawn Center on Aging has a two-part component. On one side is the education resource center, which provides education for older adults in the community, caregivers, health care professionals. The other part is acting as a training program for certified nurse assistants. With two nurse educators on staff, the center offers a CNA class about once a month.

"There's a huge need for CNAs," she said. "Our mission is to make sure that there are caregivers in the community to help older adults be able to stay at home."

Packard says the center has grown significantly over the last few years.

"We are up in the Village doing nine, 10 classes a week. We are here doing several classes, and not necessarily in this building, but we've got four or five classes going on a week here. So I see more people utilizing our services," she said.

While the center did slow down somewhat during the COVID-19 pandemic, Packard said they are now right back where they were before with the exception of a few classes.

"Even during COVID, we were able to provide services that I don't think anybody else did in Hot Springs for a while and still focused on all of our adults," she said. "And, of course, our biggest thing was coordinating and working with the county and city office of emergency management to provide those drive-thru clinics -- the COVID clinics -- at the fairgrounds."

Out of all the duties she has and services she provides, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job revolves around helping people with Alzheimer's disease. She tells of one specific example that happened many years ago.

"We had a couple come to us several years ago. She had come to our Tai Chi classes and she said, 'Kathy, can you help me with husband? He has Alzheimer's disease.' And that's one of my loves. I'm certified to do a lot of things and helping people with Alzheimer's disease and educating professionals on how to do all that stuff, I (just love)," she said.

Packard explained to the lady how to be a good caregiver and how to talk with her husband.

"Because things change when people have Alzheimer's," she said. "And how you get answers from them. It's just completely different and he's different, you know. He's not quite the same person he was and, changing with him to meet his needs and to be where he is. ... You know, she was so grateful to have that to lean on. And when things went really bad, we found a really good place for her husband. And she loved the care home and it helped her; it helped him. But it's those types of things, when you actually get to know the person and you're helping, that, to me ... that just makes you feel good when you go home."

Packard, married for 44 years, has three children, three in-law children and eight grandchildren. She says her family is the "love of her life" and "center of her universe." Along with enjoying the time she gets to spend with them, she also loves photography and baking.

"When I have downtime, I take my camera out and I go do a lot of photography," she said. "I love to do photography and baking. I do a lot of bread baking. I love to play in the kitchen. And I don't know which one would take front and center because I love both of them. Homemade pastas ... anything. I'll try anything once in a kitchen but I love to cook and bake."

Packard also notes how blessed she and her family feels to live in Hot Springs. Although it's considered to be one of the prettiest, most natural parts of the state, it's the people that set it apart, she says.

"I mean, it's absolutely gorgeous but the people, they're so welcoming and so warm and inviting. You know, when we moved up here after living in El Dorado for -- I'd lived there over 40 years, I guess. You just have this warm, welcoming feeling when you come into Hot Springs and everyone's friendly. It just fit. It was just home, you know. From the time we first thought about coming here, we just felt like it was home to us. ... When I came and interviewed for the job up here, I thought, 'Oh, I hope I get it. Because this is just the nicest place.' I don't know how else to describe it."

Packard also counts herself blessed to be doing something that she loves every day. In fact, she says there is not a thing about what they do at the center that she dislikes.

"Every day I get up and I say, 'I can't believe they pay me to do this,'" she said. "It's just so much fun and we have such a great staff here and have. You know, there isn't a day that goes by that we don't laugh and have a good time or help somebody. We're constantly helping someone. It's just knowing that when I come to work, first of all, I'm probably going to learn something new that I didn't know yesterday, and I'm going to meet somebody that I didn't know. And hopefully, I'm going to make a difference in their life by helping them with something. Even if it's just something that's little to them but it means a lot. I guess that's what drives me, you know, to come to this job. I don't know, it's wonderful. The Oaklawn Foundation funds us completely and it's just been a joy -- a joy and a privilege to be able to do it and to meet the people of Hot Springs and to meet their needs when they ask."

As the Oaklawn Center on Aging continues to grow and expand its services, Packard says it can't help but get stronger. She says they are well-equipped to change and evolve with the times to provide the services needed. The pandemic, in particular, has taught them how to be flexible -- providing programs through social media, whereas they had never done that before. That "communication and human contact," she said, is so important and if they have to go online in the midst of a pandemic to provide that, that's what they do.

"We're all aging and at some point in our lives, we're probably going to need the assistance that we provide," she said. "And I'm not saying that we're the 'be-all, end-all,' because we do partner with people. I mean, if somebody calls us and says, 'I need to apply for Medicaid assistance,' or whatever, we've got the number and we're going to hook them up with the right people. And the other thing is that we follow up on them. You know, we make sure that they get connected and that we don't just leave them hanging. I see a very positive future for the center on aging, just because people are going to age and they're going to need help."

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