Adventures in Caregiving: Connections helps families cope with dementia

Some months ago I wrote here in the Rappahannock News about an innovative, in-home program for caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Today I would like to update the community on the great success the program has experienced and urge everyone who is eligible to enroll in the program now, before it expires, in its current form, at the end of this year.

This program, called “Connections,” provides in-home support to family caregivers in Rappahannock, Fauquier, Culpeper, Madison and Orange counties – the only five counties in the United States where the program is currently being offered. Connections staff work with family caregivers in a series of eight weekly visits. The program is individually tailored to the family member’s existing skills and strengths, and based on his or her past interests and activities. To date, Connections staff members have visited more than 90 families in the five-county area, with heartwarming results.

MAKING PLAY COUNT: Rappahannock County’s Connections home visitor, Larry Stillwell, says he has spent many happy hours playing cards, dominoes, checkers and other games with Connections family members, helping clients rekindle old skills by reviewing how to count money.
Courtesy photo
MAKING PLAY COUNT: Rappahannock County’s Connections home visitor, Larry Stillwell, says he has spent many happy hours playing cards, dominoes, checkers and other games with Connections family members, helping clients rekindle old skills by reviewing how to count money.

I love my job as a Connections resource specialist working in Rappahannock and Fauquier counties. I feel lucky to be able to drive through this beautiful countryside from Sperryville to Flint Hill to Marshall, from Remington to Catlett, visiting and getting to know some wonderful people in families struggling with the challenges of dementia.

I’ve had the pleasure of prompting people with dementia to play the piano again for the first time in years, of reading her 75-year-old journal to a woman in her 90s, of playing bridge and checkers and Chinese checkers and dominoes with some delightful game players, of helping a man learn to read and count money again, and of going fishing with one of my very favorite Rappahannock men. Our Connections work has been fun and rewarding much of the time, and I know it’s helping families cope with some big challenges.

During our visits, caregivers learn that although their family member no longer has the same capabilities as before, he or she can still enjoy simpler projects. Caregivers are taught to be creative and work with the skills their loved ones now have, adapting activities as needed. At the end of the program, the family is left with a “tool kit,” which will help them plan new activities as the family member’s dementia progresses.

Not only does the Connections program provide activities for the person with dementia; it also helps empower caregivers and relieve caregiver stress. “I feel better about how to handle upcoming situations,” one family caregiver reported. “I feel more confident about Mom’s ability to stay in her home.” Another wrote: “The program was very helpful; it taught us how to engage my mom in activities she could do, giving her something to do other than just sit and watch television.”        

The Connections program has had success with people in all stages of dementia. We work with wherever the family member is in the disease’s progression. Sometimes family caregivers will at first feel there is either no need or no point in working to engage their loved one. Once the visits begin, however, we find caregivers’ skepticism falls away and both the person with dementia and the caregiver look forward to the weekly visits.

The changes we see in people’s lives and the appreciation we receive is very rewarding for all the Connections resource specialists. One Rappahannock family wrote: “The home visitor was wonderful. Very able to work with my brother – so much so that my brother has told me over and over what a great guy he is!”

Connections is open to individuals with any level of dementia being cared for at home by family caregivers. No formal diagnosis is needed. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging, and in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Central and Western Virginia Chapter and the University of Virginia, Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services (RRCS) is able to provide this program at no cost to the families.

To find out more about the program, check it out on Facebook at, visit the RRCS web-site at or call 540-825-3100 and ask for Connections. I urge all families facing dementia to enroll now, as Connections in its current form will expire at the end of this year.

Larry Stillwell is a Connections resource specialist at Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services (RRCS). He also facilitates the Rappahannock family caregiver support group, which meets twice a month at Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville. RRCS is a regional organization offering a comprehensive array of behavioral health, intellectual disability, substance use disorder, and aging services in five counties.

Family caregiving resources

• Aging Together and HomeInstead are co-sponsoring a caregiver training workshop from 9 to 1:30 this Saturday (April 21) at the Fauquier Community Center on Shirley Avenue (near  WalMart). For information, contact Aging Together at 540-829-6405 or email

• Connections, Fauquier Health and the Alzheimer’s Association are cosponsoring a dementia information night at Fauquier Hospital from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday (April 24), featuring  Kristin Williams, a neurologist at the hospital. Dr. Williams will speak and answer questions about memory loss and dementia. Jane Dalton of Connections will describe the support offered to caregivers by the no-cost home visitation program. For more information, call 540-825-3100, ext. 3476.

• The Rappahannock family caregiver support group welcomes all family caregivers and provides free and loving respite care during its meetings. The group meets at Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville at 10:00 a.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Call Larry Stillwell at 212-1227 for more information.

• Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services employs trained and experienced “senior advocates” who field seniors’ concerns and respond by linking them with the services and information they need. Call 540-825-3100. Rappahannock County Department of Social Services also has an adult service case manager trained to visit, assist, and advise on all senior issues, including dementia. Call Sharon Pyne at 675-3313.

• Aging Together, a local partnership, maintains a website ( with listings for local support groups, caregiver workshops and other aging-related information. A state-sponsored website,, offers extensive information, including lists of resources, for helping families cope with dementia, among other topics. The Alzheimer’s Association website,, contains lots of useful information, and a toll-free help line is also available 24/7 at 800-272-3900.

• On Sept. 8 in Culpeper, the Alzheimer’s Association will hold a fundraising Walk to End Alzheimer’s – the local site for the nation’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support, and research programs. Sign up at or email