Creating joyful communities for those living with dementia
By Minnie Lamberth
It’s just before 10 a.m., and you can already feel the energy building in the room as people make their way into the a large gathering area at Montgomery’s First United Methodist Church. Friends share hugs, delivered with lots of smiles and, often, a hot cup of coffee. As attendees settle into their spots at a table, the activities begin. For the next four hours, they will enjoy a fast-paced time of fellowship and enrichment.
This is the essence of volunteer-run respite ministry that helps individuals living with the challenges of memory loss enjoy friendship and social time, while their caregivers get a break for their own errands and activities. More than a dozen churches across the state have drawn from the model launched in Montgomery in 2012 and brought it to their own communities.
Katie Holland was directed to the Montgomery program when she began looking for a way to support families in the Wiregrass affected by Alzheimer’s disease. “I went to visit, and I could not believe what I saw when I got there,” Holland says. The activities – from group games, art projects to balloon volleyball – were engaging, the room was upbeat and active, and there was a lot of laughter.
“I left crying. I couldn’t believe how much joy was in the room.”
At the time—this was 2015—Holland was serving as director of a ministry for older adults at Dothan’s First United Methodist Church. She was also living with the same issues that other caregivers were experiencing. “My dad had Alzheimer’s,” she says.
As Holland began to explore possibilities, she initially contacted a dementia educator, Robin Dill, who had launched a respite ministry at a church in Georgia. Dill directed her to a program closer to Dothan being run by Daphne Johnston at FUMC Montgomery.
When Holland walked out after that first visit, she told herself, “We need this in Dothan.” It took about six months to get the ministry off the ground. But by the start of 2016, Holland had changed roles to become director of a respite ministry that today operates Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Her work as director is supported by a room full of trained volunteers who enjoy coffee time, games, exercise, art projects, community service and other activities, along with a family-style meal shared with participants living with dementia.
Holland also recognized that the engagement of volunteers met another need. The church already offered events for fellowship, she says, “but we didn’t have a great hands-on ministry. This was something that is active and meaningful for the volunteers. They love it.”
Importantly, the respite ministry draws from a pool of 150 volunteers who choose which days they are able to attend, and together they share the commitment of serving around 15 participants while enabling caregivers to take those four hours for their own errands or appointments.
Programs similar to Dothan’s respite ministry have a template to follow through the faith-based, volunteer-run model of care promoted by the non-profit Respite for All Foundation.
“Respite ministries typically start with one part-time or full-time staff member, and they are supported by a team of trained volunteers that are the key to making the program sustainable,” explains Johnston, who turned her knowledge and experience running the Montgomery program into the Respite for All Foundation. Johnston now works full-time to encourage churches and organizations to implement this respite ministry model.
A model for any size church, community
“Churches have free space that is available during the week, and they have an army of volunteers willing to serve if given the vision,” Johnston says. Because respite ministry is a social model, she added, no medicines are administered and no medical staff is needed – which is also important to making this ministry sustainable. In addition, a tuition fee of around $40 a day for participants keeps the ministries viable, though generous donations typically cover attendance for those who are unable to pay. Through the Respite for All Foundation, Johnston provides training, mentoring and other resources for local church leadership, respite directors and community volunteers to help launch and run new ministries.
This model works for churches and communities of all sizes, she said. For example, the SALT Respite Ministry started in Demopolis in 2018 at the First United Methodist Church there after a member had visited Montgomery, learned about the program and brought the idea back home. SALT, which stands for Senior Adults Living Triumphantly, operates one day a week, on Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and draws from 25 active volunteers that serve around 10 participants.
Renee Robbins, acting director, has been involved in SALT from the beginning. “My mom had lived with me for two years with cancer and Alzheimer’s,” she says, explaining her personal connection. “I thought, how could I not do this?” For caregivers and participants, “It’s a lifesaver for a lot of them.”
Because Demopolis is a small town, Robbins usually knows the participants and the caregivers involved in the ministry. “I love it,” she says. “Even though my mom’s been gone for five years, I’m doing this for her – and for myself.”
Shepherd’s Place Adult Day Respite in Fairhope provides support for individuals living with a variety of cognitive impairments, serving participants that range in age from 50 to 95. “We are the only adult day program that is social based in Baldwin County,” says Caroline Bishop, who has served as director since 2021. The program Bishop leads is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and incorporates similar activities, such as games, coffee time, art and music. “We sing everything from ‘Amazing Grace’ to ‘Mack the Knife’ to ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama,’” Bishop says. “I like to say, Shepherd’s Place is where strangers end up becoming friends and friends end up becoming family.”
Caregiver support groups are often part of respite ministries like these. As an expansion of this support, the respite ministry in Dothan recently opened a caregiver resource center, Rosemary House, in an adjacent building. The name is a tribute to the herb of memory that is part of the Respite for All logo.
Caregivers drive in from all over the Wiregrass to attend Respite Ministry, Holland explains. “They don’t want to ride around for four hours after their appointments.” The new center, which held its grand opening on Nov. 7, is a place for caregivers to land while their loved one is participating in the respite program. It also serves caregivers in the community that aren’t involved in respite. For example, conversations with trained staff can help caregivers navigate the different emotions they are experiencing. There’s also a shop with items that promote connection with loved ones who are living with dementia. Rosemary House is open four days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Dementia-related diseases create difficult situations, Holland notes. “It’s hard to put the face of hope on it. But that’s what respite is about. There is hope for this journey.”