Making a difference, one mind at a time
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Alice French has been retired for nearly 10 years, but her daughters joke she spends less time at home now than when she was working.
The 77-year-old grandmother of eight belongs to a walking club, goes bowling once a week, enjoys snowshoeing, and volunteers with five different organizations.
“I just enjoy keeping busy and keeping active, both physically and mentally,” she says.
At the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba, she assists with Minds in Motion.
The recreation program is designed for people with early to moderate signs of dementia to attend with a family member or friend. It runs for two hours each week for eight consecutive weeks, with each session consisting of a gentle chair fitness class followed by engaging activities and conversation.
French learned about the program almost seven years ago, while reading a list of volunteer opportunities in the newspaper. It caught her attention because she has known people with Alzheimer’s disease, including her brother-in-law.
“I thought, maybe this is something where I can make a difference,” she says.
Minds in Motion volunteers set up before each class, make refreshments, socialize with participants and clean up afterward.
It’s a three-hour time commitment French looks forward to. One of the most enjoyable parts is seeing participants who are initially nervous warm up to the group.
“It’s kind of heartwarming, for lack of a better word, to see someone relax and enjoy themselves and feel comfortable,” French says. “They form friendships and look forward to seeing each other again.”
A highlight moment for French happened when a musician visited one of the classes. One of the participants was perpetually antsy and prone to wandering off, but when the musician started playing Elvis Presley songs on her guitar, he relaxed.
“His eyes lit up,” French recalls. “All of a sudden, it got through to him. It was kind of a rewarding moment just to see how his whole demeanour changed.”
Minds in Motion is meaningful for care partners, too. French remembers one man with dementia who attended the program with his wife. After the man died, his wife continued to visit the class.
“She came back for a few of the sessions just because she’d formed friendships. I guess she felt it was a safe place.”
January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. More than 18,400 Manitobans live with dementia, a number that is expected to reach 39,100 by 2050.
Dementia can be isolating, says Erin Crawford, program director at the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba.
“Our whole goal is to help people see that they are not alone in going through a dementia diagnosis — that there are hundreds and in fact thousands of Manitobans who are navigating a similar diagnosis.”
The society relied on around 175 volunteers last year, and is currently (http://wfp.to/Ser) looking for more people to help with Minds in Motion, care partner support groups and the annual Walk for Alzheimer’s (scheduled for May).
“We wouldn’t be able to run our programs without volunteers,” Crawford says. “(Dementia is) a tough diagnosis, but there are a lot of happy moments that happen in our programs, and those happy moments happen because of volunteers.”
If you know a special volunteer, please contact email@example.com