Four hours out of 168 a week doesn’t seem like much time. It is, however, enough to give caregivers who monitor their loved ones every hour of every day a moment to do some chores, go to a doctor’s appointment or simply be alone.
The Oasis is a free, weekly program at the First Baptist Church of Lewisville. It supports caregivers of loved ones with early- to mid-stage Alzheimer’s and related dementia by watching and entertaining their afflicted family members for several hours.
The program provides attendees with activities and individualized care from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is a degenerative brain disease that currently affects more than 5 million Americans, according to figures provided by the Alzheimer’s Association. Symptoms of dementia include difficulty with memory, language and other cognitive skills that hinder a person’s ability to fulfill everyday functions.
Founder Bronwen Zilmer was the primary caregiver for her father following her mother’s death. She watched her father during the week, and her family would help out on weekends. He had Alzheimer’s, which eventually inhibited him from swallowing and lead to his death.
“Dad was just the most energetic, happy, enthusiastic person I knew, and just slowly watching the disease rob him of his personality was the most difficult part for me,” Zilmer said. “Two things I needed the most when I was taking care of him was I needed a break and I wanted him to have something to do.”
The Oasis has been serving 12 diagnosed participants at a time but the program will be expanding when it starts up again Aug. 31. Zilmer is hoping to fill those spaces as well recruit more volunteers so she can continue to provide nearly one-on-one assistance for each attendee.
There are other volunteer opportunities too. Each session starts off with about 40 minutes of morning discussion before everyone congregates for a musical performance.
The day also includes senior exercises, such as chair aerobics, as well as crafts or games. Zilmer hopes to have more musical groups and exercise instructors who specialize in senior aerobics volunteer their time to the group.
Previous performers for the music portion, a favorite among participants and volunteers alike, include Class Act Tap Company and an Elvis impersonator. Church member Jilian Brown leads the group in hymns and classic songs every month, and a number of the attendees with dementia sing along.
Volunteer and church member Jim Colbert worked in long-term care as an executive director for an assisted living and memory care facility in Denton. Memory care is a specialized unit in assisted living that keeps patients from wandering and getting lost.
“Short term goes immediately, but our feelings don’t,” Colbert said. “During music, they’ll start reminiscing… They’ll go back to that first time they heard that, and they can tell you what they were wearing. They can tell you who they saw.”
Colbert started volunteering with The Oasis when it started in February 2015.
“The most important thing I believe for us is giving our care partners four quality hours just to do whatever they need to do, because they’re with them 24/7 and they hardly have a break,” he said. “We’re the oasis.”
Larry Wilsey, who has Dementia with Lewy bodies and Parkinson’s, said the congregation allows him to be with people who he can help and who can help him.
“It’s a very good operating program that most anybody I think would find some interesting discussions and people,” he said. “We’ve got new ones in here from say 40 to some over here that are 94.”
Janice Wilsey, who has been married to Larry for 49 years, said the service the group provides is a priceless blessing. She wishes there were more programs like this available that aren’t in a memory care unit and would provide activities for Larry.
“He’s still very high functioning but can’t be left alone a lot,” she said. “He loves the engagement, so he comes home happy from [The Oasis].”
Janice Wilsey uses the time her husband is at The Oasis to run errands or go to appointments.
“It gets to a point where you’re responsible for every single thing that needs to be done in your home,” she said of the transition from wife to full-time caregiver. “You also don’t have the communication and feedback from your partner that you used to have, so you miss that partnership.”
Janice Wilsey said as the baby boomer population gets older, the need for support grows.
“You have to find time for yourself. Sometimes it’s very late at night,” she said. “I think you come to a point where you can’t do it alone.”
Janice attends three caregiver support groups, one of which is monthly and is through The Oasis.
“It’s remarkable the resources they have pulled together to add variety to their program and to keep it new, still with consistency,” she said.
Zilmer said any organizations or faith-based groups wanting to start their own caregiver-day-off program can use her materials or come observe The Oasis.
“We really as a community have to come together to help all these families that are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and to me, the more programs, the better,” she said.
The Oasis partners with the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Dallas, which also provides training or materials for groups wanting to start a program at alz.org.
Zilmer seeks individual volunteers with positive attitudes who are willing to actively engage with participants and who can commit to The Oasis each week or every other week. The program follows close to the Lewisville ISD calendar and only meets once a month during the summer.
Groups of volunteers looking to lead exercises or perform should have availability between noon and 2 p.m. on a Thursday.
Caregivers wishing to enroll their loved ones or volunteers wishing to help can call Zilmer at 214-394-4721 or email her at email@example.com.
The First Baptist Church of Lewisville is located at 1251 Valley Ridge Blvd.