By Danielle Rogers
This year, I joined 17 other AmeriCorps members sponsored by Full Life Care and the Washington Service Corps who were committed to providing services that help older adults live independently. Though I am the first AmeriCorps member to serve at the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter, Full Life Care has had members serving in the aging community for many years.
My journey to the Alzheimer’s Association started five years ago when my grandma told my family that my grandpa had been diagnosed with “senile” dementia. At the time I did not know a lot about the disease or the impact it would have on my entire family, especially my grandma. Later, as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I began a service learning internship at A Helping Hand, a non-profit companion care provider whose services allow seniors in the community to continue living independently. I served as a companion to many older adults in the community with varying needs and disabilities including Alzheimer’s or related dementias. At the time I had no experience working with older adults. Each time I met with a client I was challenged in different ways. However, despite these challenges I enjoyed the hours that I spent with clients and I have fond memories of that summer. One memory I enjoy is of a man in his late 80s who had dementia. I assisted him many times and as I spent more time with him I learned about his family and hear his life stories. I became accustomed to his habits, unchanging grocery list -Diet Coke, mini muffins, and grapes. Even though he did not remember my name each time we met, I felt we had a connection and he always expressed gratitude for my help.
After this experience I knew I wanted to continue working with older adults and began looking for opportunities with AmeriCorps. That is where I learned about Full Life Care and the many positions in aging services they support. After a few interviews and weeks of nervous waiting I was offered the position at the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter as the Education and Programs Specialist. A few months later, I packed my suitcases and moved across the country from Chapel Hill, NC to Seattle, WA.
I didn’t know much about Seattle but working with the Alzheimer’s Association was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up During my service, one of the activities I enjoyed the most was volunteering as a “social buddy” for a four-week program called Staying Connected. This program is designed for individuals in the early stages of memory loss and their care partners. Participants meet in a small group setting to discuss ways to cope with memory loss, plan daily events and support each other.
As a social buddy, I made calls once a week to check in on my buddy’s progress with his events plan and worked on planning activities with him during each meeting. It was very uplifting to see how engaged he is in the community. He still goes to tai chi regularly, plays folk music and meets others in the community with Alzheimer’s or related dementias. The group as a whole brought a positive outlook to a somber subject that’s hard to talk about. Participants were engaged, making jokes and laughing but were still able to share their concerns about memory loss.
Even though we knew each other for such a short period of time, my buddy was always happy to tell me about what was going on in his life. We were such a good pair that by the third session we were even wearing matching shirts. I slowly realized that my buddy reminded me of my grandpa, not just because of their diagnosis but in many ways .They both had a calm energy, were friendly and so kind. They both love playing music and my buddy even had the same “punny” jokes we’d hear from my grandpa.
On the fourth and final day of the Staying Connected series, everyone discussed what they enjoyed the most about the Staying Connected program. When it was my buddy’s time to share, he simply asked, “Is there an advanced Staying Connected or Staying Connected part two?” From my experience with my buddy and AmeriCorps I learned the amazing bonds we can form with people with memory loss. I hope to continue these bonds and many more for years to come.
To learn more about Early Stage Memory Loss programs visit our website at alzwa.org or call 1.800.272.3900.