The closure of Ashland Memory Care Center leaves few options for similar respite care and socialization programs for elders with memory loss.

The craft supplies have been packed away, the files have been boxed, and the e-mail addresses erased. There's a sign on the door announcing a yard sale for the books and games and everything else that made Ashland Memory Care Center a happy place for people struggling with memory loss.

After 15 years, the Rogue Valley's oldest and largest adult daycare center has closed, leaving a hole in the continuum of care for adults who have memory loss or dementia.

"It's sad," said Diane Thompson, an activity planner who lost her job at the end of February. "It's not just a job for me. It was a very important part of a lot of people's lives."

Adult day care offers a way for people who are caring for a loved one at home to take a break, and it provides social opportunities for elders who can no longer get out on their own.

The center had to close when Ashland Community Hospital decided in November to eliminate its financial support, which accounted for about one-third of the annual $310,000 operating budget. Hospital officials have said they had to cut expenses because income has been shrinking as more people are unable to pay their hospital bills.

Led by Elizabeth Hallett, the center provided socialization for elders and a break for the family members who were providing in-home care around the clock.

"When somebody has memory loss they can't be left alone," said Lori Lind, of Ashland, who brought her father to the center. "They might fall down, or burn the house down. They don't eat. It's like having a toddler."

The service started as a project of Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland when Dorothy Straw and Shiela Ettlich provided respite care two days a week.

"We were just two little old ladies in a church," Ettlich recalled this week as the center shut down. "We wanted to provide a day off for caregivers and a social day out for the participants. It worked beautifully."

Over the years, the program expanded to three days, and then four. Hallett and her staff developed activities that provided elders with mental and physical exercise in a happy social environment.

"They always seemed so good at celebrating what each participant brought, and did their best to make that a part of what worked for the rest of the group," said Dave Harvey, of Talent, who brought his dad to the center until he died.

"He seemed to get a big kick out of it," Harvey recalled. "It was something we both could look forward to."

Funding was never easy. There's not a lot of money available for adult day care.

"Most adult day programs don't survive very long unless they have a heavy endowment, or an institution that supports them as a community benefit program the way the (Ashland) hospital did," Hallett said.

Ashland Community Hospital partnered with what was then still called Trinity Respite Care, to provide nonprofit status that would help secure grant funding. But the new arrangement eventually created problems. An attorney pointed out potential legal problems because respite workers were not paid as much as hospital employees. Hospital managers made respite workers hospital employees, but that increased operating expenses.

Grants and fees could not keep up with escalating operating costs, and cutbacks in public transportation two years ago reduced the number of people who could reach the center. The hospital's decision to pull out left few options but to close.

"It's a huge blow for Elizabeth, and it's real sad for our community," said List, the Ashland woman who brought her father to the center.

Hallett said she plans to travel and look at how other cultures take care of their elders to see whether there's a better model to follow. She said the need for adult day care is only going to increase as baby boomers ease into old age and memory loss.

"The dementia's not going to go away," she said.

Her clients' families are looking for ways to piece together some kind of care arrangements that will give them time off to enjoy a movie, shop for groceries, or just rest and recharge.

Hallett said the Memory Care Center's demise creates an opportunity for the community to decide how it wants to take care of its elders.

"While we're overhauling everything else (in health care) we might as well be realistic about the therapeutic value of adult day care programs and how they support in-home care," she said. "Institutions aren't going to be able to take these folks. People are going to need to find creative ways to take care of this."