Volunteer and help a neighbor

Adventures in Caregiving

Connections, the free local program I work for which offers support to family caregivers, is looking for volunteers interested in spending a few hours a week helping local families cope with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. Training will be provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and our Connections staff. Connections volunteers will visit families regularly, for about two or three hours a week over a period of eight to ten weeks. They will do what I do – help family caregivers develop engaging activities for the person with dementia.

I have been the Connections resource specialist for Rappahannock and Fauquier counties since the program began. Sometimes clients and I might go for a walk or just visit and talk, but more often we do jigsaw puzzles, play card games like pinochle or a simplified bridge, or play dominoes or checkers. Sometimes we build and paint models or birdhouses, or simply play the piano together.

Bringing old memories alive is especially satisfying. I love to get clients talking and get them to write down their stories, type them up, and then share them with the client and the family. A few people have had old journals or old letters, and when we share those, and we read them aloud, the lights go on in their minds and they get to relive those old memories. Old photographs can serve a similar purpose. Engagement, in whatever form, is the key to a richer life for the person with dementia.

Volunteers are needed to continue the program after grant monies end next spring. “The program has been so successful that we want to make sure this opportunity continues,” said Aging Together Director Chris Miller. “It’s the kind of volunteer work that’s rewarding for the families and the volunteers. What’s needed are people with some time, a bit of creativity and a good ear for listening. We’re hoping to find four or five interested folks to help us support caregivers here in Fauquier.”

This means getting to know the family well and learning about the previous interests and activities of the person with dementia. Connections volunteers will visit and help develop activities that will keep the family member engaged and fighting boredom or idle time.

There’s a notebook we call a “tool kit” to help the family and volunteer develop ideas for each person. With some families, just showing a caregiver how to make it simpler for their family member to do something they used to do is enough. Ultimately, we want to leave the family with a new outlook on what their family member is able to do and how these activities might be adapted in the future as the dementia progresses. I work with family caregivers to adapt old interests of the person with dementia; week by week, they explore new ideas when old ones have failed to catch on. Sometimes a historical DVD is the key to engagement; other times it may be a puzzle or game or simply a conversation.

Besides the activities, there’s an additional side to my visits with families struggling with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. I spend time listening to the caregivers share their frustrations, their sadness, their needs and their stress. I try to encourage them to take care of themselves by hooking them up with caregiver support groups and whatever community resources are out there for them. I help the family understand how Alzheimer’s progresses, how communication changes and how to respond in a helpful way to new, strange behaviors in order to keep problems from escalating.

There are many benefits to volunteering with Connections families. It’s so satisfying to come into a home where there are challenges and suggest simple activities or simple modifications of routines that aren’t going well, and see these ideas make life easier for everyone. I’ve loved my time with Connections and want to see it continue. Family caregivers need and deserve this kind of support. Theirs is a tough job.

You don’t need to be a trained professional to be an effective Connections volunteer. Just having another person visit each week for a few months helps these families a lot.

If you would like to learn more about volunteering with the Connections program contact my supervisor, Jane Dalton, at 540-825-3100, ext. 3476, or at jdalton@rrcsb.org.