Living with dementia and memory loss is a challenging life for all involved – the patients and their caregivers – but the struggle often goes unnoticed. 

 “People are struggling,” said Greg Cooper, the senior pastor at Woodbury Baptist Church. “These memory care issues are often off the radar.”

Woodbury Baptist Church, located at 6695 Upper Afton Road, has become a site of hope and support for those dealing with memory loss through The Gathering, a program coordinated by Lyngblomsten. 

“We see ourselves as the beginning of help for the participants,” said Carolyn Klaver, manager for The Gathering, “and we’re the beginning of hope for a caregiver.” 

THE GATHERING

The Gathering, which currently has nine different sites across the Twin Cities, was started by Lyngblomsten, a Christian nonprofit organization serving older adults and their families, in 2000 as a respite for caregivers while giving a safe place with programming that people with memory loss could attend.

The Gathering at Woodbury Baptist Church launched in October. The program is a formal partnership between Lyngblomsten, Woodbury Baptist Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church andWoodbury/Peaceful Grove United Methodist Church. 

Additionally, the program has informal partnerships with South Washington County Schools and Thrivent Financial.

“We recognize that this is a need that is in our community,” Cooper said, “and it’s often a hidden need. 

“We felt led to answer this call, this invitation to serve people in this way.” 

Currently The Gathering in Woodbury has seven participants.

During The Gathering, which meets from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., every second and fourth Tuesday at Woodbury Baptist Church, the participants are able to engage in “stimulating activities” while the caregivers have a bit of respite for themselves. 

“A Gathering day’s purpose is to stimulate as many areas of the participant’s brain as possible,” Klaver said, “and it may be the only time the caregiver has their brain to pause and not just be thinking about the person with dementia.”

A typical day at The Gathering, which is completely run by volunteers, begins with coffee and conversation and then the day progresses to include both large and small motor activities such as games, light exercise, simple woodworking, painting, polymer clay projects and MacPhail Music for Life.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Klaver said. 

The Gathering also incorporates in discussions and reminiscing to trigger memories and socialization. 

“It’s not like they’re going to remember it two hours from now,” Woodbury resident Jeanne Wadd, a volunteer, said. “But, they’re right there in the moment and you can just feel them thinking.” 

A fee is charged to each participant dependent on their situation.

Klaver said the mental stimulation is very beneficial for the participants.

“We are not going to change the course of this disease because dementia is fatal,” Klaver said. “That’s the reality that we work in, but if we can give today the best quality possible then we’ve accomplished our goal. 

“We’re not going to make this disease shorten in time, but if we made a difference for those five hours we’ve done our job.”

In terms of caregivers, a caregiver support group is held every month, however, Klaver said, many caregivers use the respite to take care of errands or to just catch up on sleep. 

“The caregivers are very sleep deprived, Klaver said. “They’re sleeping with one eye open because this person might get up and wander off.”

A THOROUGH PREPARATION

When someone is interested in joining The Gathering, the first step is to determine whether or not they meet the criteria, Klaver said. 

The criteria that The Gathering looks at is whether the potential participant can walk in and out of the bathroom stall using it independently, whether they require medications, can they walk enough and are they manageable by trained volunteers as far as behavior goes.

If the criteria are met, an intake is then taken and the participant is placed on a waitlist. 

Once a spot is available, the caregiver and participant then go through a face-to-face assessment.

Additionally, the caregiver and participant then write down their life story, which the volunteers then read through.

In addition to learning about the lives of the participants, volunteers must also go through six hours of training with continuing education every year. 

Volunteer leads go through an additional six hours of training. 

Currently The Gathering in Woodbury utilizes around 20 volunteers, who are responsible for planning the entire program with the Gathering. 

On average, volunteers hold planning meetings every six months, which last a couple hours. 

Additionally, volunteer leads also put in the final preparations for an individual day, Klaver said. 

“It’s not a small investment,” she said. “Everybody stands on their head to make it possible.” 

BONDING FOR EVERYONE

The Gathering isn’t just about the activities, Klaver said, it is also about relationships and bonding. 

“It’s a pretty tight knit group of people,” Klaver said. 

Woodbury resident Bob Horn and his wife Anne, who has Parkinson ’s disease, have been participating in The Gathering since October and he said it has really made a difference in their lives. 

“It provides an opportunity for the clients to have a really enjoyable day,” he said. “The bonding took place about two steps into the building, so what The Gathering does for its clients is the marvelous part.” 

Additionally, Horn said he has found bonding with the other caregivers. 

“We affirm to one another that what we’re going through is challenging,” he said. 

Wadd said she initially started volunteering with The Gathering because of her mother, who suffered from memory loss, and the experience has proven to be rewarding. 

“Our participants are truly inspiring,” she said. “I continue to learn a lot about life when I am with them, each of their life stories gives me the opportunity to learn about the significance of one’s life and how each person is unique.” 

When it comes to working with people with memory loss, Wadd said it’s important to not be judgmental. 

“I take hem where they’re at,” she said. “You have to appreciate and respect each person for where they are today – mind and body.” 

Klaver said she would like to one day see The Gathering meeting weekly, but that is still to be determined. 

But for now, she said, it’s important to be the support that people dealing with memory loss need. 

“We have to equip communities to deal with dementia,” she said. “Every one of us will very soon know someone, be someone or take care of someone with dementia, so let’s take value in learning how to work with them. “We are better because of our participants.”