Volunteers get trained for dementia visits

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Sununu Bah

During his eight years working in three nursing homes, John Wortman had a first-hand view of the needs of residents.

He was struck by the fact that many of those with dementia were rarely, if ever, visited by family and friends. While the staff attended to their physical and medical needs, their intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs were not well addressed, fueling feelings of loneliness.

He believed the problem was the result of a disconnect between how society perceives dementia and what the disorder actually is. “The gap between what people think about dementia and how those with it really are is tremendous,” Wortman said.

He said some think those with dementia cannot remember anything from the past, do not enjoy activities they used to engage in, and that there is nothing that can be done to support them emotionally or engage them.

But that is often not the case. Many with dementia do respond to visitors, can talk about the past, and particularly enjoy listening to music, singing songs and similar activities.

Wortman attributes the false public perception to denial and the fact that most people with dementia are institutionalized.

“There is a fear of facing their own disease or death. People feel uncomfortable. Lack of contact lets people create a story, and society reinforces the stereotype.”

Initiating the program

Wortman went to his friend Rabbi David Shneyer with his concerns, and with a plan to help lessen the isolation that dementia patients experience.

Wortman knew that Shneyer — the director of Am Kolel, a Jewish Renewal community devoted to meeting unmet needs in the community — had a history of implementing solutions. (In Hebrew, Am Kolel means “an inclusive people.”)

Shneyer had led Am Kolel’s rally of the Poolesville community to create a senior center in western Montgomery County. It was accomplished with a combination of local funding and a Community Partnership Grant from the office of the Montgomery County Executive.

The concerns of dementia residents resonated with Shneyer because he has family members who are dealing with dementia. To help address the problem, he helped create the Visitors Project for People with Dementia (VPPD), sponsored by Am Kolel and funded by Montgomery County government. The program trains volunteers to visit dementia patients in nursing homes.

Michael Marcus, former director of Older Adults Services at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, is a community resources consultant to VPPD. He was surprised to discover that no similar programs exist elsewhere in the United States.

“While there was much information about someone with dementia, there was no organized, in-depth program for training in how to be with people with dementia,” Shneyer said. “Workshops for family members were rarely more than an hour or two in duration.”

“While the Alzheimer’s Association offered excellent workshops throughout the year, none were geared to volunteers who would consider doing this kind of service,” Shneyer said.

“While the Jewish Social Service Agency had an extensive training program for hospice volunteers, it did not have a program specifically for residents with dementia living in nursing homes. None of the other social services programs in the county had a program to train nursing home visitors.”

Am Kolel’s first training program was offered on three Sundays in November and December last year for four hours each afternoon. Experts were brought in to help with the training. Among them were Anthony Hyatt, Creative Engagement Educator and board member of Aging and the Arts; social worker Franca Posner; nurse Susan Akers, instructor of Insight Meditation, and Wendy Miller, director of the Washington D.C. Center on Aging.

The 12 hours of training gave the volunteers an in-depth understanding of the causes and manifestations of dementia, as well as tools for speaking with residents and engaging them creatively through music, games, storytelling and role-playing exercises.

Dozens being visited

In January, 15 volunteers started regularly visiting 30 residents of four nursing homes in Montgomery County: Potomac Valley, Collingswood, Sligo Creek and Regency Care of Silver Spring.

Deborah Chandler, director of recreation of Sligo Creek Center, said the impact the volunteers has had on the residents has been profound — for both the patients and staff members.

She said it can be challenging for nursing homes to give consistent one-on-one time to patients. “What [the volunteers] do is personalized and nurturing. I think that’s the advantage of having them come in. They really get up close and personal with the residents, and get to know them, their hobbies, likes and dislikes.

“They have the time to give to that resident,” Chandler said. “So let’s say while we only have 10 minutes, they have 45 minutes to two hours.”

Wortman became a VPPD volunteer because he wants to help change the perceptions of dementia by taking action so that others will follow. Wortman believes many people “come from a prejudiced mindset...[where] there is a stigma and fear of the unknown.”

But “people with Alzheimer’s are like all people,” he said. “They have intellectually attuned minds; [they] just don’t remember something you said five minutes ago.”

“The little time it takes to connect with them really makes a difference,” Wortman said. He likes to encourage volunteers to “be with people with dementia.”

VPPD hopes to double the number of volunteers they train, the number of nursing homes served, and the number of residents visited. 

Shneyer, who also volunteers, added: “Our goal is to become sort of a new friend or extended family [to patients]. A person that they can share their memories with — of their families, of their life.”

Those interested in volunteering for the VPPD may email visitorsproject@gmail.com or rabbidavid@am-kolel.org, or call (301) 349-2799.

The organization is also seeking additional funding and welcomes donations. Tax deductible contributions can be sent to Am Kolel VPPD at 19520 Darnestown Road, Beallsville, MD 20839.