Aging Well: The need for respite care

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While scanning radio stations recently, I landed on a program that quickly caught my attention. A minister was talking about what it means to be a good steward of time. It got me to thinking specifically about how we choose to spend our second-half years when time is likely more plentiful than in our younger years.

My mind drifted back to a moment at an older adult retreat a few years ago when a widower shared his story with me. He said he had been drowning in too-much time as he grieved his wife’s death. His saving grace came when he was asked to volunteer for his church’s respite program, an outreach ministry for persons in the early stages of dementia. Assigned to be a “buddy” to a retired physician with Alzheimer’s, the widower said he discovered a renewed energy and sense of purpose in his friendship with the former medical doctor. He also recognized the blessing of providing the doctor’s wife some much needed time away from her  caregiving responsibilities. “She was so kind and loving, but she was desperate for a few hours to visit the hair salon or have lunch with friends,” he said. As I thought back to the widower, the doctor and his wife, it seemed that the respite ministry offered a triple-win situation.

Indeed the blessings of respite care ministry are far reaching. At Williamsburg United Methodist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, an afternoon social program for older adults actually began fourteen years ago as a ministry to serve young adults with severe disabilities. Soon the families of older adults with special needs were asking to participate. Over time the original outreach ministry evolved into a daily respite program in which twelve attendees gather alongside the care team to create a warm, family atmosphere. As one attendee with dementia often repeated, “I don’t know who you are or how any of us ended up here, but we are a family.”

In the evolution of the ministry program, WUMC’s Respite Care Director Carolyn Yowell  notes that the gift of time to caregivers was always paramount so that the caregivers could continue to provide care for their loved ones. “Respite care is a place where you leave feeling better than when you arrived, regardless of your role in the program.”

Those words made me think of my friend Mary Anne Oglesby who recognized a similar need for senior care support in her own community of Gallatin, Tennessee and felt compelled to do something about it. As a professional singer and speaker with twenty years of experience in senior care and health care industries, Mary Anne founded The Veranda at College Heights Baptist Church in Gallatin. Today she describes the outreach ministry as a “congregational respite program” because of the involvement of many people in her church. Unlike with many church-related respite programs, Sunday school classes from Mary Anne’s church prepare lunches for all the participants on certain days of the month. Church volunteers also donated over $25,000 of free labor to renovate the meeting space for the Veranda, and they help keep attendees safe and engaged in activities including worship and music. Volunteers even accompany their special friends on short sightseeing daytrips to enjoy nature.

Mary Anne also believes that an important part of the journey through dementia is to help the attendees serve others, including making Christmas decorations, packing supplies for homeless shelters and helping with tasks for the church office. “There is no stronger bond with someone than to help them walk through the wilderness that is dementia,” emphasizes Mary Anne. “The church should be at the forefront of helping these families.”

Recently I had the opportunity to share the stage at a caregivers conference with Dr. Peter V. Rabins of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. An expert in the field of dementia and the author of The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Persons with Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementing Illnesses, and Memory Loss in Later Life, Dr. Rabins said that the single most underutilized support for dementia patients and their caregivers is the respite program that can be hosted by churches.

With a rapidly-growing population of older adults dealing with memory loss, there is an enormous void that needs to be filled. Most churches, large and small, have the space to meet and a pool of volunteers with compassionate hearts willing to be trained. So why aren’t more chuches involved in respite programs for older adults and their families? Maybe it’s a matter of being a good steward of time.

Missy Buchanan, UMR Columnist

Missy Buchanan is a sought-after speaker on topics of older adult ministry and spiritual creativity, she brings passion and humor to many events for churches, organizations, and women’s groups. She has appeared on Good Morning America with co-host Robin Roberts and is the author of books including Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults, Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms, and Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults. She has written for many publications including Presbyterians Today, Mature Years, Christian Association Serving Adults Ministries, Entrepreneur, and The Dallas Morning News.

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