Alzheimer's patients find help, kindred spirits in social club

  • Staff and members of Kindred Spirits Social Club spot a hawk as they walk in the park behind Gary J. Arthur Community Center at Glenwood. Third from left is Judy Miller, facilitator of the Social Club.
Staff and members of Kindred Spirits Social Club spot a hawk… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 18, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Like good parents everywhere, Jim and Jean Slingluff drive their son to doctors' appointments, social outings and anywhere else he needs to go.

But unlike most couples, they're pulling a second round of "chauffeur duty" more than 40 years after their son gained independence with his driver's license, ever since Alzheimer's disease struck Jim Slingluff Jr. as an adult and made him wary of getting behind the wheel.

Now 58 and divorced, he not only surrendered his driver's license in September, he has moved back in with his parents, who are both 83, so that they can be his caregivers.

Nowadays, the retired couple said the whole family's spirits have lifted since they discovered the Kindred Spirits Social Club, a Howard County pilot program that started last month and is geared to people like their son who have some form of early-stage dementia.

The club that coordinators hope will serve as a national model has been a godsend, they say.

"It's been difficult for us emotionally more than anything else," said Jim Slingluff Sr. He said that the couple noticed "a difference" in their son when he returned to Maryland from Arizona three years ago.

"Jim says he's very glad to go [to the club] and has no qualms about it," Slingluff said. He said he and his wife drive their son to Glenwood from Carroll County so he can connect with others in the early stages of dementia, which causes deterioration of memory, concentration and judgment.

The program also provides structured activities to help participants develop coping techniques and gain insight into their disease.

A $22,600 Senior Center Operating Funds grant from the Maryland Department of Aging and a $20,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy, took the idea for the club, as well as such other components as training and conferences, from the drawing board and into the community center, located off Route 97.

"Howard County has a wonderful array of resources for seniors," said Carol Wynne, coordinator of early-stage and support programs for the Greater Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, "and this program is very forward-thinking."

The need for such programs is "only going to grow," she added, noting that one in eight baby boomers, a population born between 1946 and 1964, will likely develop the disease.

Yet groups for early-stage dementia are not available anywhere else, coordinators say.

"That's what's so exciting," said Judy Miller, occupational therapy assistant with the county's Office on Aging and facilitator of the social club. "Our team is developing this program and we're making changes all the time to see what works and what doesn't.

"I hope, I dream that we will be able to put this program in other senior centers," she said.

Alzheimer's disease, which affects 89,000 Maryland residents, is the most common form of the more than 70 kinds of dementia, said Wynne. The association, based in Timonium, is managing the pilot program with the Howard County Office on Aging.

The impetus for starting the social club was to provide a place for people whose needs fall between the cracks of existing programs, Wynne said.

"People who are between adult day care and a senior center needed someplace to go," Wynne said. "So many times they feel alone and think, 'There's no one else like me.' "

Only about 10 percent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's are younger than 65, she said, noting that the progressive disease is now the seventh-leading cause of death.

"There can be so much fear and stigma attached to this diagnosis, but when people are here together they are comfortable and safe and they realize that life still has a lot of meaning," she said.

The level of activity, education and socialization is based on the belief that people with early-dementia are still highly functional and want to have a say in planning meaningful activities, Wynne said.

"We won't be holding sing-a-longs or playing bingo," she said. Instead, there will be monthly outings to museums and dinner theaters, as well as current events discussions, speaker presentations, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, cooking, socialization, and music and art therapy.

"I like this program's way of keeping everything upbeat," Jim Slingluff Jr. said, as he and five female participants chatted Wednesday about the new club, which meets two days a week for four hours. Participants pay $26 a session, which includes activity fees, snacks and lunch.

"I never cried when I got my diagnosis," he noted, adding that he believes "there's no good reason to fight against reality."

Virginia Kovalyak, who's lived in Columbia since 1968, described the club as "a really nice program, especially with the problems I have."

Kovalyak, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about three months ago, said she "kind of suspected" she had it, adding "it was hard to accept in the beginning." Now, she said, she's taking a new medicine and it's making a difference.

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