Alzheimer’s disease can be isolating — not only for those who live with it but also for their families and caregivers whose lives are also deeply impacted by it. But social activities can result in meaningful interactions and connections, lessening feelings of isolation, relieving anxiety, and improving the overall quality of life.
In honor of Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Month, Jennifer Smith, assistant director of the Chelsea Senior Center in Chelsea, Michigan, discusses the intersection of dementia, caregiving, and community programming.
“Especially when we think of brain health in general, that’s really the beginning of it; when you’re isolated, your mental health declines, and then your physical health declines,” she says. “We’re trying to help people understand that these connections are vital for brain health, whether you already have dementia, are trying to decrease your risk, or trying to stay healthy as a caregiver.”
Smith is helping to spearhead the center’s three-phase plan to expand memory care and caregiver support services, awareness, and education throughout the surrounding communities. She shares how these resources can change how we navigate Alzheimer’s diagnoses and create spaces for those impacted by the disease to connect and support each other.
“It’s our feeling that no matter where you are in your life or your journey with your health, whether you’re living with cognitive decline or not, being here and participating in any of these activities are going to help reduce isolation and overall make you a healthy person,” Smith says.
Memory support programs for everyone
With grant funding from the 5 Healthy Towns Foundation, the Chelsea Senior Center launched three different memory support groups, each specifically aimed at people living with cognitive and memory changes and their family caregivers.
- Connections Memory Café is a social gathering for people experiencing memory loss and their loved ones to socialize and enjoy a fun time together away from the stresses of home. Over lunch, games, and activities, they connect with others who share similar experiences with dementia.
- Chat to Heal: A Caregiver Group Support Program is an hour-long facilitated support group hosted for caregivers caring for people living with cognitive changes and memory loss. It’s an opportunity to talk, support, and share resources with people who face the same challenges. Respite care is available for caregivers’ loved ones during meeting times.
- Brain and Body Wellness Workshops are for those concerned about their own brain and/or memory changes and those living with mild dementia. In this educational group, people learn, connect with others, and practice techniques to strengthen their brain, body, creativity, sense of humor, and quality of life.
Launching these memory support programs is part of a three-part grant-funded initiative; the second phase focuses on community outreach.
“We reach out to the other communities that are part of the 5 Healthy Towns initiative and support funding to launch whatever programs they’re interested in,” Smith explains of the grassroots outreach efforts. Participating organizations are responsible for facilitating the continuation of the program.
Phase three, Smith says, focuses on community awareness and education, including community trainings designed ”to help people support those living with memory changes and cognitive decline, including how to notice signs of it and how to de-escalate scenarios.”
The hope is that it raises awareness and understanding of changes in things like vision and posture, “all of the things that might make them seem not interested in what you’re saying, but it’s really because they can’t be.”
Smith says the education component is “key” to the mission of this initiative Part of that education, she adds, is helping caregivers identify as caregivers.
“What we found is a lot of people don’t self-identify as a caregiver; they’re just ‘doing what you’re supposed to do’ when you love someone, whether it’s a spouse, whether it’s a brother or sister, or your best friend who doesn’t have any other support.”
The goal is to help them “understand that it’s okay if [caregiving] has taken a toll” and empower them to seek support.
“Providing these programs not only offers caregivers a chance to interact and get support from other people who are going through the same things they are, but it’s also a chance to say, ‘Wait, maybe I am a caregiver, because I see these programs, and I read the description, and I’m having these issues. I’m stressed, I’m feeling anger and aggression towards my loved one, I’m depressed, I haven’t had a haircut in six months.’”
Ease the Day: Caregiver Respite Support Program
The Chelsea Senior Center partners with like-minded, senior-focused organizations to provide several respite opportunities, including the Ease The Day respite support program. This allows caregivers to comfortably leave their loved ones in a safe, trusted space where they’ll participate in meaningful activities while caregivers take a few hours to themselves.
“Caregiving is a challenging act of love and takes its toll on the mind, body, and spirit of caregivers,” the Senior Center’s website reads. “We know the needs of caregivers are extensive, complex, and great.”
Smith says caregivers trust local senior centers because they are known in the community and where people come for support and resources.
“As a caregiver, I’m familiar with the center, I see all the programs that they do, and I’m comfortable leaving [my loved one], and I can go get my hair cut, I can go pay the bills, I can go take a nap, I can go use the bathroom by myself without having to worry,” says Smith.
The adult on-site daycare program sees participants in varying stages of dementia and has activities targeted towards “keeping them happy, engaged, and comfortable.”
“Caregivers can leave their loved one knowing that they’re going to interact with other people and take part in the programs and have intergenerational opportunities,” she adds. The center’s other programming — like the ukulele group and the Movin’ and Groovin’ group — is also available for the Ease the Day participants, allowing them to co-mingle with people of all ages and cognitive abilities.
Finding support in your community
Smith recognizes that, for some, there are barriers associated with community resources — things like geographical location, mobility, transportation, and access to technology. But she points to ways those living with dementia and caregivers can access support and social activities:
- Libraries. “A lot of libraries offer memory support programs and programs that you can download like nature walks and tours through zoos or famous gardens.”
- Faith-based organizations. “A lot of churches, faith-based organizations have programs or even outreach groups that will potentially come in and sit with somebody for a few hours; a lot of people are comfortable with their church members and would feel comfortable having them come in to sit with their loved one. Catholic Social Services and Jewish Family Services also have a lot of resources online.”
- Archangels. “It’s basically a caregiver index, you answer a few questions, and it tells you where you are on the spectrum, and then they provide lists of resources in your area.”
- Area Agencies on Aging. “This is a huge resource — they have a lot of caregiver support opportunities.” They also provide a no-cost telephone helpline, meal support, and other dementia-focused programming.
Smith reminds caregivers that these programs and the people facilitating them are created to make the caregiving journey easier to navigate so it doesn’t take such a mental, emotional, and physical toll.
“That feeling that you’re the only one going through something like this is so isolating, but you’re not alone. You’re going to find that there are people who are going to support you and who are going to lead you to resources and programs that are going to be helpful.”