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Going clubbing

Kaplen JCC finds ways to stimulate senior adults with early dementia

These are some of the artworks created in the Club.
These are some of the artworks created in the Club.

There are clubs, and then there is the Club, a highly successful project of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, filling an important role for seniors in the community.

Conceived and created last year by Judi Nahary, the JCC’s director of senior adult activities, the senior social group was started “because a lot of people in SAC” — the Senior Activity Center — “had the beginning signs of cognitive decline but were not yet ready to move into ARC,” the Senior Adult Reach Center, Ms. Nahary said “Neither was appropriate, so we had to figure out a different way to engage them.”

In addition, she said, “We had just finished unrolling a platform of special interest clubs for the ARC program, and we saw the success of that.”

The Club — the JCC chose that name to make the program enticing — is a hybrid between SAC and ARC. It started with seven members and now works with about 27. With 24 different clubs to choose from, “it’s a much easier place for people to start” before working their way into ARC,” Ms. Nahary said. “You start someone in a comfortable atmosphere and they move as needed.”

Among the most popular of the clubs “are things like music appreciation, drama, travel, and the virtual art gallery tours, which draw between 18 and 20 participants at a time,” Ms. Nahary said. “Other clubs are also amazing, but fewer people participate.” she said. Cooking and jewelry-making each attract between seven and 10 people. “They can choose what they want from multiple options,” Ms. Nahary said. “They have control of their day.” Other clubs include such offerings as photography, games, art, dance, boxing, and history.

Ms. Nahary is proud of the artwork the Club’s art cohort has created. For some projects, members engage in “upcycling,” recycling common products to make art. Among their projects — whose individual pieces were created by members and assembled by the instructor — is a heart made from wine corks, “donuts” made from cement and then decorated, poppies created from components of egg cartons, and a negative space project where members painted around contact paper letters to form words such as LOVE and CARE.

“Some members are so surprised,” Ms. Nahary said. “They didn’t realize they had the ability, talent, capability. When it’s put together and framed, they’re so proud, they can’t believe they did it. They feel successful, that they have something to give society. They’re increasingly failing at things — words, memory, how to get dressed — tasks we take for granted. We try to give them an opportunity to feel successful.”

Marlene Ceragno, left, and Judi Nahary

Marlene Ceragno, the coordinator of the senior adult department program and caregiver services, described the Club as “a social group for people in the early stages of dementia, who make their own decisions about what they want to do for certain parts of the day. We don’t say something like, ‘now it’s time for exercise.’ Instead, they can choose to go to senior boxing or photography, art group or pet therapy. Fortunately, we have enough space to accommodate it all.”

Ms. Ceragno said she finds it gratifying to see people find a new passion or a new hobby at this time in their lives. One man, who has produced magnificent photographs for the program, is especially proud. Until this program, he never had realized that he had artistic ability.

The program is particularly valuable for people “who can still do exercise with SAC and enjoy entertainment, but when there’s a lecture and they can’t sit still that long, can now go to one of the clubs,” Ms. Ceragno said. “It’s a wonderful bridge, and people are finding ways to be stimulated. We try to work with their strengths.”

Leading the clubs are members of the JCC staff, volunteers, and some professionals brought in from the outside. For example, “someone comes once a month from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to do an art gallery program, and the director of our dance program leads the dance club.” She hopes that ultimately some clubs may be led by members who are particularly interested in a certain area and might want to run a program.

Ms. Ceragno said the JCC also offers a memory café for people affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s at an early age, in their 50s or 60s. “Their challenges are so different,” she said. “When you get it in your 70s or 80s, Medicare will already have kicked in and your spouse is probably retired.” When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s younger, neither of those factors is likely to exist.

“When I started researching, I saw how few benefits and resources there are for people with younger onset,” Ms. Ceragno said. “In addition, stigma drives people away.” Ms. Ceragno wants people to connect, and she hopes to start a support group. She already has connected one couple to someone who has early onset dementia and runs a support group for people in a similar situation.

While her work is challenging — not only is she immersed in issues such as dementia during working hours, but she spends hours outside the JCC researching the issues. The results make it worthwhile, she said. “I see the smiles on their faces,” and that inspires her to carry on.

In her caregiver support group, she tells loved ones that they “can’t do it all.” They have to have their spouses, or parents, in a program. “You can’t keep them being successful all day long. But here as a group we can. We send them home happy and tired. What more would you want? We’re offering something so important, and while it can be depressing, we have given someone a gift during the last chapter of their life.”

The JCC also offers a Sunday program for people in adult daycare, created in response to families who reported how hard it is to keep these loved ones busy two days in a row. The program runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. “It was heartbreaking to hear caregivers say they were not able to go to family functions because their loved one with dementia, who used to love to socialize, now got confused,” she said. “Now they can drop them off here and go off to, say, a barbecue, knowing their loved one is also happy and having fun. Caregivers get to refresh and recharge.”

Ms. Ceragno said the JCC senior adult program must be seen in order for someone to understand its unique nature. “Where else do you see children marching down the halls?” she asked. “Most senior centers have only old people, but they want more stimulation and socialization. We’re constantly connecting,” she said, for example, taking videos and photos of the children and sending them to older members. Some seniors become grandparents to a particular class. “We call them “grandfriends,” she said.

Ms. Nahary said that what you must remember about seniors with dementia is that “they’re still in there. We have to change our expectations and meet them where they are.” She cringes, she said, when people do not do that. “It’s been incredibly profound for me,” she added. “I’m learning every day.”

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