Churches support families living with Alzheimer's

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, so it’s timely to take a look at how some Florida United Methodist Churches are helping those affected by this healthcare crisis.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that more than five million people in America and 500,000 Floridians are suffering from the ravages of memory loss, which means there are many, many families who face serious challenges. Some United Methodist Churches in Florida are blessing these people with care, concern and concrete alternatives to sometimes seemingly hopeless situations.

The Alzheimer's Association turns Florida's Old Capitol Building purple to emphasize concern for and awareness of the disease.

Winter Park First UMC is a trail blazer, having launched a Brain Fitness Club pilot in 2007. The ministry grew out of a need in the local community, was molded and created by volunteers with expertise in the field and has been overwhelmingly embraced by local citizens.

The positive impact of this program has doubled the number of classes offered, and the model has been adopted by at least one other UMC, Orlando FirstNew Covenant Church in the Villages offers support groups to family members and caregivers while simultaneously providing respite care to their loved ones who are impaired.

All this aid is provided by enthusiastic leaders, volunteers and church leadership support.

“This is a ministry of our church which has grown greatly,” said Rev. Gary Rideout, minister of congregational care at Winter Park UMC. “We put an emphasis on health and wholeness and this program is a great outreach to address a need in our community and show that we care about body, mind, soul and spirit,” he said.

Peggy Bargmann, R.N., was an integral part of creating Brain Fitness Club.  A Lutheran by faith, she and a local couple who faced the early onset of dementia connected with Winter Park’s former pastor Bob Bushong and his wife about the need for help. Winter Park had a new building with space for the club’s activities. The church council and senior staff liked the formal plans submitted by the interested group and the club activity began.

The program is a recipient of the International Council on Active Aging’s 2013 Innovators Achievement Award, which recognizes programs and concepts that advance active aging.

It’s called a club but it’s actually a class that meets four hours a day, two days a week.  There are three 14-week sessions each year. Two groups now meet at First UMC of Winter Park. The club serves individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or early dementia who are able and willing to participate in group activities that promote brain health. Bargmann leads the groups, which are limited to 16 members. Activities include word games, tai chi, music, mathematical puzzles, exercise and fellowship.

There are two to three staff members and two to four volunteers that manage the club. They receive training on the Brain Fitness Club curriculum and learn about various forms of dementia, the impacted areas of cognition and about the challenges that caregivers face.

“The Brain Fitness Club is a strengths-based program. We gear all activities to support members and strive to boost self-esteem by providing positive feedback and creating a sense of accomplishment…no two individuals will face exactly the same challenges,” Bargmann said.

Many buildings use purple lighting to call attention to Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month.

Participants come by word of mouth, recommendations from local doctors and memory disorder centers. At this time, no church members are members of the club, but church members are volunteers. In addition, graduate clinicians from the University of Central Florida’s Department of Communication Sciences volunteer to work with the members.

Membership fees for the club are $1,000 a semester and cover program costs.  Scholarship funds allow members of all income levels to participate, with a sliding scale fee available to those on a fixed income.

First Orlando began offering its Brain Fitness Club in September 2015 and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  There are 16 members of the club and four are church members or members’ relatives.  The youngest is 58 and the oldest is 87, according to Vandie Loper, senior and special needs coordinator at the church. Referrals have come by word of mouth, local doctors and the Alzheimer’s Association. Loper believes that the club offers witness that the church is concerned with its neighbors’ mind and body and spirit.

Because the Orlando operation is patterned after the Winter Park program and Loper was trained there, the Brain Fitness Club is very similar. Each participant receives one on-one-time with a graduate clinician, a personalized assessment and activity recommendations, individual binder, group activity and recreation time and other supplies and resources.

Club activities follow a comprehensive curriculum including color-coded tasks that stimulate different parts of the brain, chair exercises, musical circles and deep breathing every 20 minutes. Loper said that club members “spark off each other during the four hours the club meets; and even though they have had changes in brain function, they can still create new neuron pathways.”

Participants benefit greatly, as do their families. A daughter of a club member wrote to Loper:

“As a caregiver to my mom I am so grateful for the Brain Fitness Club. It’s the best thing that has been a part of our changing lives. This is a warm and positive support environment for a scary situation. My mom thrives on the uplifting social connections, the educational and physical activities that now enhance her confidence and overall well being. I feel better knowing she’s in good hands, thanks to Vandie, Sue (another leader), the students and volunteers. It’s because of them I get to experience some peace of mind.”

New Covenant UMC in the Villages offers a different kind of ministry for Alzheimer’s by providing support for the caregivers and respite care at the same time for the “loved ones” who have memory loss, explains Marilyn Anell, director of pastoral care at the church. “Those that have the illness are in an environment with complete love and attention and activity that they enjoy attending with their ‘friends.’ It is awesome to see how they interact with each other while their caregiver is in a facilitation group,” she said.

Rochelle Holcombe has led the program as a volunteer for four years. It was originally meant to be a caregiver support group but it became obvious that caregivers couldn’t leave their loved ones alone in order to attend. So the church opened up three rooms where 45 to 50 people can attend the support meetings and around 30 loved ones can spend two hours doing activities involving music, devotionals and food. The meetings take place every Thursday from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

Thirty volunteers from the church are trained and rotate with the loved ones. Holcombe said caregivers come for hope and encouragement and to share experiences, such as what medications worked for them and what activities helped them and their loved ones cope.

The program provides information on the diseases, veterans’ benefits and Christian counseling is available, too. Holcombe and her husband Dick are passionate about the work being done at New Covenant. “Through education and encouragement throughout our communities, we can and should reach out to both the caregiver and loved one and walk with them during this time,” she said.

“I want to challenge all United Methodist Churches to step forward and seek out those within their church and community with the disease and fill the void in their lives through offering support groups, respite care programs, educational seminars or ongoing visitation programs,” said Holcomb.

Anne Dukes is interim editor for the Florida Conference.

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