By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
A session of Memory Makers in Oxford has the feel of a mellow senior social club. Big band music plays in the background while folks talk about houses where they once lived. They decorate gingerbread houses for children’s groups. After the houses are adorned, the group arranges some flowers and then gathers around the piano for a sing-along.
The members of the club – who all have Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia – are surrounded by volunteers who gently guide them through four hours of activities twice a week.
“We have a good group of volunteers, we couldn’t do it without them,” said Jenny Gordon, Memory Makers program manager and the only paid employee of Respite Day Services of Oxford.
Memory Makers, which meets at First Presbyterian Church on Mondays and Thursdays, opened in October. It grew out of a support group for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s.
“Caregivers love it,” said founder Dianne Arnold, who cared for her late father who had Alzheimer’s and started a similar program in Cleveland. “It gives them a break.”
More resources needed
During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals often remain quite social and active, but the loss of short-term memory can create potential safety hazards, so caregivers have to live on constant alert.
“Caregiving is one of the hardest, most difficult jobs, especially if you’re dealing with people with memory loss,” said Joan O’Quin, a social work professor at the University of Mississippi who specializes in gerontology and serves as a board member of Respite Day Services of Oxford. “No matter how much they love that person, they desperately need a break from the 24-hour responsibility.”
Memory Makers is one of four respite care programs across North Mississippi. Other programs are offered in Amory, Corinth and Cleveland.
“We need more resources like this,” O’Quin said.
There are some 53,000 Mississippians with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Nationally, there are some 5.3 million with some type of dementia and 11 million unpaid caregivers. And those numbers are expected to grow significantly by 2025. In Mississippi, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is expected to rise 27 percent between 2000 and 2050. In some Western states, Alzheimer’s numbers are expected to double.
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but keeping the individual active and stimulated can delay the need for other kinds of care, O’Quin said.
“It provides relief for the caregiver,” O’Quin said. “It provides a safe, nurturing place for the participants.”
At Memory Makers, all of the activities are planned and specifically designed even if it just seems like fun.
“It always has a purpose,” Arnold said. “Research tell us … it really does make a difference.”
There are brain stretcher exercises, gentle physical activity, a project like decorating a gingerbread house or filling Halloween candy bags for children. Music and singing stimulate different parts of the brain.
“Everything is prepared for them,” Arnold said.
Even though the Memory Makers participants have lost some of what they once were, they still have much to share. Memories from 30 years ago are often clear, even if today isn’t.
“There’s definitely stuff we learn from them,” Gordon said. “They have something to offer.”
Right now, there are 10 people in the Memory Maker’s group, and the group can take as many as 12.
“As we get more, we will expand to other days,” Arnold said, although that will mean a change in location.
Right now the cost is $20 a day; participants bring a sandwich and Memory Makers provides drinks and snacks.
“That partially covers our costs,” Arnold said. “We have to have the support of Oxford.”
And Oxford has been supportive. The City of Oxford provided $12,000 in seed money to the non-profit Respite Day Services of Oxford.
Many of the volunteers are drawn from O’Quin’s social work courses.
“They have to serve to learn,” said O’Quin, and many of the students are inspired to work in geriatrics after their volunteer experiences.
Memory Makers may provide the blueprint for other communities. Through a partnership with the University of Mississippi and the Department of Mental Health, where Arnold works, the evolution of Memory Makers is being tracked as a demonstration model to create a tool kit for other communities.
Across the region, similar programs have found footing, too. First Friends in Amory opened in 2000.
“It’s worked out better than anyone ever envisioned,” said Mary Nell Dorris, executive director of First Friends, who lost her husband to Alzheimer’s.
First Friends has grown to 17 participants, three paid employees, 15 regular volunteers and 18 hours of services offered a week. The Amory Middle School Builders Club volunteers twice a week, too.
But it took time to solidly establish the program.
“The beginning was rocky,” said Dorris, who remains a volunteer for First Friends and currently serves as the board president for the Mississippi Alzheimer’s Association.
But it has made a huge difference. Caregivers tell Dorris that First Friends becomes something to look forward to for everyone.
While nothing rolls back Alzheimer’s, First Friends sometimes sees its participants take back small tasks – like getting dressed – that they had let their caregivers take over, Dorris said.
Dorris can see the impact on the caregivers. They take the time to go grocery shopping, take naps and go to the doctor.
“They’re better rested,” Dorris said. “They’re letting go of some of the stress.”
Respite care in a professional setting usually runs $13 an hour, which is beyond the reach of many caregivers. Both Memory Makers and First Friends in Amory provide services for $20 a day.
The keys to getting a respite program going are a person with passion for the cause and a community with the strength to back them up, Dorris said.
“You really need a person with passion,” Dorris said.
Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Thursday
– Where: First Presbyterian Church, Oxford
– Info: (615) 305-1978 or (662) 846-5335
– When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday
– Where: First Baptist Church, Amory
– Info: (662) 256-9730
– When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays
– Where: First Baptist Church, Corinth
– Info: (662) 286-2208