Volunteers, houses of worship help people with dementia, their caregivers

Shana and Doug Jones happily drive every Thursday morning from Marietta to Buckhead, where Doug looks forward to four hours of fun and fellowship with other members of Respite Care Atlanta and its team of volunteers.

Shana’s equally eager. She knows Doug – who has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia – will be safe and happy, and she’ll be getting some much-needed alone time to go shopping, read a book, or do nothing.

“This program has just been a godsend,” said Shana Jones, a retired bank vice president.

It’s just the kind of program that Harriet Shaffer looked for – but couldn’t find – after her husband, longtime Atlanta attorney and community leader Charlie Shaffer, developed Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.

Respite Care Atlanta is patterned after a program in Alabama that Harriet Shaffer later discovered and championed, even though it was too late to help her husband.

In September 2018, RCA opened with help from Shaffer, other prominent Atlantans, seven churches, and one synagogue along the Peachtree Street corridor in Buckhead. Their goal was two-fold: create a program providing activities, fun, and opportunities for friendship for the participants and a welcome break for their caregivers. An eighth church later joined the group.

The program is housed in the youth center at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church and operates three days a week, 50 weeks a year. It’s designed much like a social club; attendees are called members, said Jenna Smith, program director.

RCA has grown from seven members to 22. Members come to the program one to three days a week at a cost of $55 a day. All have been diagnosed with early- to mid-stage dementia or cognitive disorder and are evaluated to ensure that the program is, and stays, a good fit for them, Smith said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Members start the day with social time and coffee. That’s followed by activities, such as trivia, to stimulate the mind, and exercise, including sitting yoga. After a catered lunch, there’s more time for games, arts and crafts, and possibly, work in the program’s therapeutic garden. The most popular part of the program is saved for the final 30 minutes: music time.

“The research tells us, and the reaction of members shows us, that music really lifts the souls of these people,” said Hamilton “Ham” Smith, a retired senior vice president for SunTrust Bank, self-described amateur musician, and volunteer in charge of the music program.

Hamilton, 87, tells jokes, plays familiar tunes on the piano, and hands out song sheets with tunes from the 1950s and 1960s for member singalongs. He also has a modest budget to bring in outside musical groups to perform jazz and other types of music.

Fellow volunteer and actress-singer-songwriter Eileen Howard and her pianist recently put on a show for the members called “60s Girls,” performing classics such as “It’s My Party,” “Downtown,” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”

“The group sang along on the parts they remembered, and, by the end, folks were dancing and singing,” Howard said. “I really can’t exaggerate the joy in the room.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Smith said volunteers “are the lifeblood of our program” and are typically retirees who attend one of the supporting congregations: Some serve as companions for an RCA member during the day’s program. Others are “greeters” and “goodbyers,” and they make sure members safely connect with the caregivers at drop-off or pickup.

“Many of our companion volunteers were once caregivers themselves for a spouse or parent with dementia. They have chosen to honor their memory by supporting our members and their families,” Smith said. “In my opinion, this is the most beautiful form of service I can think of.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

For safety’s sake, the program shut its doors during the pandemic. But it did not disconnect from its members. RCA delivered cards, food and flowers to their homes and had front-yard and Zoom visits with them said Charlie Battle, a prominent Atlanta attorney, lifelong friend, and colleague of Charlie Shaffer, an early organizer of the program, and RCA’s most recent board chairman.

The program reopened in 2021, and its board is in the process of developing a three-year strategy to add more volunteers, members, and fundraising, said Battle and the new board chair, the Rev. Julie Wright, an associate minister at Peachtree Road Methodist Church.

“More and more people I know are being impacted by this, so I’ve seen the need,” said Battle, who helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta in 1996. “And it’s a growing need.”

Jerry Baxter has been attending the program since last May. He was a practicing attorney when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in August 2020 in his late 60s.

“My husband didn’t have a lot to do, and I felt like anything would help him, so I checked it out,” said his wife, Debbie Baxter. “He now goes three days a week, and he enjoys it.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Doug Jones said the program’s been good for both he and his wife, Shana, who is his full-time caregiver.

“It’s a good chance for both Shana and myself to get some time apart,” he said. “What I like best about it is I get to play games and make friends with other members who have a lot of the same issues I have.”

Shaffer said she hopes RCA “is going to mushroom.”

“It’s such a wonderful thing and is needed – so needed,” she said. “I’m sure my husband is smiling down.”


MORE DETAILS

Respite Care Atlanta participating congregations:

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

Cathedral of St. Philip

New Hope AME Church

The Cathedral of Christ the King

Peachtree Road United Methodist Church

Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church

First Presbyterian of Atlanta

The Temple

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

How to help: respitecareatlanta.org provides info on volunteers, donations, and services. You also can call 404-591-4365, or email: info@respitecareatlanta.org.