A dynamic new non-profit provides relief for caregivers while helping those with dementia to live full, active lives at their daytime memory care locations on the Eastside.
Barb had a full life in western Washington, with all the pleasures and pressures of a happily married businesswoman in midlife. Her husband, Bill, had always been a loving partner and a good father to their kids, who had since moved away. She had a lot on her plate, and since Bill was recently retired, she relied on him a lot. But over a short time, Bill kept forgetting things and his attention span grew shorter, along with his temper, which had never been an issue before. Barb found herself taking more and more time away from her work as Bill became more and more dependent, until she just didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone during the day. What’s more, the added stress and uncertainty was taking a toll on her physical health.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s become a common scenario here in Washington as our population ages. According to a 2013 report from The National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, our state ranked first in highest number of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that in 2016, more than 100,000 Washington residents age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer’s. This does not account for all the other dementias, such as Lewy Body and Parkinson’s. They also conclude that the instance of death from Alzheimer’s has increased 82 percent in the last 16 years, and it continues to rise.
When a diagnosis confirms Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, it’s often a shock to families. They have to navigate a whole labyrinth of decisions and services. Some consider in-home care, but it can be expensive and, in more remote areas, it may not even be available. For those struggling with the new limitations of the disease, it’s important to retain a sense of autonomy and dignity. Having medical personnel in one’s home, or moving to another home, like an adult family care situation or care facility, can be confusing and disheartening, sometimes creating new problems alongside the ones they’re designed to help.
In Bill’s case, he didn’t need a nurse and neither of them relished losing their privacy. He was still strong physically, and wanted to stay active. Even if she abandoned her business, which was not an option, Barb needed time away from home to take care of things, visit with friends, and refresh so she could be attentive when she was home with her husband.
She found Old Friends Club through a support group. Because it’s close by, Barb can take him on her way to work. She knows he’s safe and cared for and having fun. It has reduced her stress so she can take that time to devote to herself, her business and her errands. One of the unforeseen benefits is now, at the end of the day, they can come together like they used to after work and talk about their day. Also, Barb can consult with experienced professionals who may confirm or alert her to issues that Bill is dealing with. A program coordinator or Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) may catch symptoms of a urinary tract infection or dehydration, which often present as increased confusion or strange behaviors that a family caregiver may not recognize.
The clubs are built to partner with other community resources like senior centers, churches, grocery stores and restaurants. Members can stay in their neighborhoods and often become even more active in their community than they were before.
Bill loves to tell stories and still has great recall from earlier in his life. Now he has a whole new audience to share with. Through Old Friends Club, Bill has made new friends and finds purpose by helping others around the table. Art, movement, social gatherings, current events and music are part of an ordinary day at Old Friends Club. In fact, some of Bill’s group entered their artwork to the Evergreen County Fair this year and won ribbons and honorable mentions! All this adds up to a sense of accomplishment and companionship for those involved and families have called the program “life-changing.”
Old Friends Club began just two years ago in the small Snoqualmie Valley town of Carnation, when Club founder and executive director Karen Koenig gathered community resources to help the people most affected when a local adult day care she was working at announced it would be closing its doors. A nearby church offered space and meals were coordinated with a local café and the Sno-Valley Senior Center. They went quickly from opening two days each week to three, and then opened a second location in Kirkland in the summer of 2016.
This month sees the opening of a third Old Friends Club location in Sammamish, close to the senior living community of Providence Point. Director Koenig said she receives inquiries and interest every week about families and communities who need these services. “At a fraction of the cost of in-home care, it can be a welcome alternative or supplement to bringing an agency into the home,” says Koenig. “People feel they are a part of something dynamic, much like a social club, at a time when circumstances are conspiring to make them feel isolated and alone.”
The Clubs are small and manageable, with 10 to 15 members each day, and staffed by experienced leaders in geriatrics, nursing assistants and volunteers. Koenig has designed the program to be replicable and independent, opening the doors for people who want to start a program in their community. Since Old Friends Club is part of an expanding network of aging and dementia-care providers, they can also help connect families to other resources.
Right now, the Sammamish location, opening in November at Pine Lake Covenant Church, is accepting new members. They are also hiring a CNA and need volunteers to come and join in the fun for one five-hour day a week (Monday, Wednesday or Friday). Carnation and Kirkland locations are accepting volunteers as well.
Musicians and crafts people are encouraged to share their gifts by performing or teaching. Koenig says volunteers consistently declare they receive more than they give, and recommend friends and family members to share the experience.
In addition to volunteers, the non-profit operates with the help of grants and donations. This helps keep costs low (an average of less than $15 per hour for most monthly memberships) and helps to offer assistance for low-income applicants.
A recent fall fundraiser was cut short because management felt that people and resources might be overtaxed with so many natural and man-made disasters taking place within a short period. To pick up the slack, Old Friends Club has partnered with Northwest Cellars and The Giving Canvas to hold “The Art of Giving,” an online art auction on the big shopping weekend after Thanksgiving. The idea was the brainchild of former volunteer and new board member Meenakshi Sinha, who started The Giving Canvas on Facebook to use her art to help local charities. Another board member, Bob Delf, has opened his Kirkland tasting room, Northwest Cellars, for the club’s celebrations and will display the auction art from Seattle area artists the week of November 19.
Contributor Amy Sassenberg manages community relations at Old Friends Club, a nonprofit daytime memory care program that cultivates joy in the lives of adults with cognitive challenges and nourishes the well-being of family caregivers. For more information, visit OldFriendsClub.org, find them on Facebook, or call 425-681-9776.
Note: Barb and Bill are based on real OFC members, a composite of two couples, to assure confidentiality.