Students volunteering with local dementia patients

Posted by Mariel Kennedy

Many students do not give much thought to the local Wesley Community; the building complex may seem to be little more than a stopover that delays the bus trip to downtown Saratoga Springs. On the contrary Wesley means much more not only to residents and staff members, but also to several Skidmore students looking for volunteer work.

For more than 35 years, the Wesley Community, located at 131 Lawrence Street, has offered what its website calls "an innovative combination of independent housing for older adults and skilled nursing care on a single site."

Services range from apartment complexes to assisted living to in-and-out-patient rehabilitation to long-term care and beyond.

The Wesley Care Center, the complex providing services in long-term care and adult day services, also provides Skidmore students with the chance to brighten the days of many residents through literature.

Interested students can spend time volunteering with Wesley's reading program through 2 Victoria, the floor designated for dementia patients. Students can sign up to come to the center and read to patients with early-stage dementia or Alzheimer's Disease on a regular basis or on a schedule that works for them; times are flexible.

Trudi A. Cholewinski, program manager for 2 Victoria, explains the program developed from Saratoga Reads, a local program in which community members read a book and engage in discussions and events pertaining to the book and the experience.

Recommended types of readings are episodic pieces, short stories, poetry or anything that can be read in full during the 30 to 45 minute timeslot.

Regardless of the material being read, volunteers are both encouraged and expected to be engaging and interactive. Cholewinski said, "The main thing about our residents is that they need someone to speak a bit louder, slower and clearly. Read with enthusiasm. Ask questions. Get imaginative. If the book has pictures, show the pictures to everyone. The one thing they don't want is someone just sitting and reading. It is more of a discussion."

Carol Brown '13 has been actively volunteering with the reading program since the fall semester of her first year at Skidmore.

"Reading aloud is one of the best ways to entertain dementia patients in a nursing home. It can keep them more alert. It can help stimulate their memories," Brown said.

Like Cholewinski, Brown stresses the importance of engaging residents during sessions. Brown feels energy and animation are key, saying, "Stop reading and tell a story, get up and show them pictures, act out a scene, use voices for characters, do anything you can to keep them engaged." Brown says she likes to sing aloud and make sound effects as she reads, adding that it is fine if you do anything embarrassing since the patients will not remember during your next visit.

There can be difficulties associated with working with dementia patients. Brown said, "The hardest part about working in the dementia unit is that the residents will often fall asleep while your reading." However, she says that volunteers just need to understand it is not personal or disrespectful.

Cholewinski said, "The patients generally enjoy the visits from the students/volunteers. Our folks have short-term memory loss. They may not remember that the person came the last time, but in the moment they enjoy it. Also, they enjoy discussing books/stories from the old days, they enjoy reminiscing." Brown describes the residents as some of the sweetest people she has ever met.

Though there are no prerequisites for a position, Cholewinski says she asks potential volunteers to shadow a reader and take a tour of the floor to get an idea of the job and environment. Before being hired, potential volunteers are typically screened.

Again, positions are flexible. Each month, Cholewinski sends out an e-mail to volunteers containing available timeslots. Volunteers can sign up for one or more reading slots.

Cholewinski added, "I am open to suggestions for books, or new ideas to the program. That's the beauty of our floor, we are forever changing and making things better."

Brown says there are several benefits of the program, mentioning specifically creating a connection with the Saratoga Springs community and interacting with peoples who can be underserved by the community. The added knowledge of improving the lives of others is not that bad either.

"More than anything I'll remember every time I made them laugh. Sometimes you'll think the whole room is asleep, and you'll read something funny, and all of a sudden it will come alive because they got the joke too. Those are the moments when you can feel how big of an impact you're making on their lives," Brown said.

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