By Emily Williams
As reopening plans begin for lower-risk operations, organizations that cater to senior citizens are continuing to keep their distance. Community respite programs that cater to adults with mild to moderate dementia have had to commit to the new normal, as their organizations may be the very last to reopen.
Encore, a ministry at Canterbury United Methodist Church, and Founders Place, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, are among a number of respite programs throughout Greater Birmingham who are having to adapt to serve their at-risk population of participants who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Encore Program Director Patti Williams, RN, MSN, and Founders Place Executive Director Susanna Whitsett expect to be the last aspect of daily life that returns following the pandemic.
“We’ll be the last to get back,” Williams said. “They are not able to comply and it’s no fun being policed. You can’t police these people all day telling them to keep their masks on.”
Once COVID-19 hit, the social needs of participants grew with the added isolation. Thus, the task for Williams, Whitsett and their respective teams of volunteers has been to figure out how to be social while remaining apart.
Before the pandemic, Whitsett describes Founders Place programming as a combination of things: continuing adult education, Sunday school and a cocktail party.
“It’s very light, there is banter and, again, this is not a population that is spending a lot of time in playfulness,” Whitest said. “It’s a reimagining of how one can be and for a short time exist in a space that is free. You aren’t worried about whatever that condition means for you. That is off the table for a while.”
Immediately after lockdowns began in March, Founders Place began organizing a lineup of volunteer phone buddies and pen pals for program participants. Over the months, the first iteration has grown into Founders Place at Home.
“Just like everybody else, we are really devastated that we aren’t meeting in person,” Whitsett said.
The program is tiered, broken into levels of contact. Some participants receive only mail, she said, as a phone call might throw them off mentally, others receive multiple calls throughout the week.
Founders Place volunteers also provide Connection packets, which include things such as prayers, poems, arts and crafts, puzzles, jokes, trivia, homemade cakes and cookies and more.
“You don’t immediately or typically consider people in their 70s or 80s taking to Zoom,” Whitsett said. “As our Bishop Key Sloan said, ‘It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks if he really needs to learn.’ I count myself in that, as do many of the volunteers.”
Participants have been able to log in to Zoom programming with help from their caregivers to stay connected to their fellow classmates and volunteers.
Whitsett noted one participant in their program who has been on lockdown in his assisted living facility, with his wife on lockdown at the same facility but in memory care. He has a paid companion who has been given clearance to enter the facility five days a week for three hours, and she has been helping him log onto Founders Place Zoom calls.
“Well, this has become the social highlight of his week; those are the exact words from his son,” she said. “The caregiver said every day she comes in he asks, ‘Is this Founders Place day?’”
The same participant also had his birthday while under lockdown, inspiring Founders Place volunteers to develop an idea for birthday “window waves.” Whitsett noted that not all assisted living facilities allow it, but his did let volunteers come by a window and hold up signs for his birthday.
“It was really so meaningful,” she said. “These interactions that we took for granted have taken on even greater weight and meaning and certainly for the population we are serving who are typically isolated even without a pandemic. “
Whitsett said Founders Place staff and volunteers are continuing to broaden their programming, adding new Zoom offerings.
Both Founders Place and Encore also are seeking opportunities to bring a bit more music into their participants’ lives. It’s a favorite offering at both facilities.
“We sang every single day,” Williams said. “We would always finish the day with choir, and they absolutely loved it.”
Williams is looking to possibly coordinate a way to host an outdoor concert for her crew, providing both a safe, social opportunity as well as a way to enjoy music together.
Whitsett said the Founders Place team is working with local musicians and a storyteller to create a new Zoom offering that alternates music and stories for an hour, to be called Wonderful Wednesdays.
“Music is just a really impactful thing for folks with memory loss, and without,” Whitsett said.
At Canterbury, Williams works with a team of more than 170 volunteers. “Not all of them are active. Most of them are retired and many of them are over 80, which places them in the high-risk category as well.”
Volunteers are broken into teams. Each team is paired with one of the program participants and creates a plan that caters specifically to that person’s needs and abilities. That plan now is dependent on how well they have taken to technology.
“We have 90-year-olds that are FaceTiming and Zooming,” Williams said. There are also yard visits, where volunteers meet the participant with a mask on and sit outside at a socially acceptable distance.
Any little bit of contact carries its own weight and is important to combat the isolation that not only dementia creates, but the pandemic as well.
“It’s worth everything,” Williams said. “Any kind of socialization you can give them is so helpful, and the family appreciates it so much.”
Caregiver support groups continue to meet every Thursday via Zoom at 10 a.m.
The support group is open to anyone in need of the services, but the program participant list is closed for now. In fact, the group is not charging for their services for the time being.
Williams’ now sends out comprehensive weekly emails, full of activities that would normally take place in the classroom. She inserts links that can be easily navigated, allowing participants to simply click on a link and begin an activity, such as watching a video or completing a game of trivia.
In addition, Williams has been making videos of herself doing everyday tasks. “I made a video recently while I was planting a garden,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep ourselves in contact.”
In June, the Encore crew started a monthly drive-thru social event – a “party in the parking lot.”
Volunteers are posted throughout the parking lot on the Canterbury campus with signs featuring each friend’s name.
The July event featured a drive-thru line of different quick activities.
“They get something at every station,” Williams said. “The participants don’t have to touch anything, and everybody is going to be gloved up, masked up.”
Activities included trivia games, arts and crafts, a photo booth and a fishing game with a bag of Goldfish crackers as the prize. Williams noted that Goldfish are something that the program would have available for participants every single day, a trademark of sorts.
A group art project also was launched, with Williams providing each participant with a heart to decorate. Participants will take the heart back when they go to the August drive-thru event, and Williams has plans to create an art installation with them.
“I’m going to take their heart, cut them in half and attach it with another half of a heart,” she said. “This is a crazy time. We’re all making our own way, but we’re all in this together and we’re still connected.”