Book chronicles Hot Springs church’s pioneering work in respite care ministry

By Martha Taylor
Special Contributor

Scripture reminds us more than once of our responsibility as Christians to care for vulnerable persons, such as the poor, sick, widows and orphans. Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see why First United Methodist Church Hot Springs has provided a place of safety and support for more than 20 years for adults with different forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.

While the histories of long-lived ministries may be lost to time, The Caring Place has the benefit of a comprehensive telling of the earliest days of the ministry through 2015 in a book written by Frances C. Dalme, Ph.D., RNP (retired) and First UMC Hot Springs member. In The Caring Place: Making the Most of the Long Goodbye, Dalme chronicles the ministry’s beginnings, its mission and evolution into a national model of care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“I thought [The Caring Place history] should be documented because at the time we were the only ones in the state doing anything,” Dalme said.

Dalme’s nursing specialty was in geriatrics, so when she joined First UMC Hot Springs in 1997 it was a natural fit for her to begin serving at The Caring Place.

“I loved getting to know people and I loved the participants,” she said. “It sounded like a wonderful ministry.”

While she no longer is able to volunteer “on the floor,” Dalme is a volunteer facilitator for the caregiver support group, something she says is as important as the care given to the participants.

“Caregiving usually falls on one member of a family, and it’s 24/7 with no relief,” said Dalme. “In the care group we stress how important it is to take care of you.”

Early days

The results of three community-wide health needs surveys, conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the administrators of St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center (now CHI St. Vincent), revealed the need for a safe place for adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s to spend time in social activities and to provide respite and support for their caregivers.

The social model for the program was initially called Adult Day Respite Care and focused on a variety of activities such as art, music and exercise. As organizers drafted the program’s mission and scope, it became clear that a natural partner would be a local church that could provide safety for the participants and recruit a pool of trained volunteers. In 1992, St. Joseph’s administrators approached First UMC Hot Springs with the idea of providing space for the program. With the enthusiastic blessing of the senior pastor, the Rev. David Wilson, the response from the pews was a resounding, “Yes!”

“When we began, we were aware that the number of people who had Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia was increasing in the Hot Springs area,” said Wilson, now a retired elder living in Hot Springs. “We received training and a start-up grant from the Brookdale Foundation. It was, and is, a needed and rewarding ministry.”

Wilson said that because the model for The Caring Place was so unique and effective it drew the attention of other churches and hospitals in Arkansas and the United States.

“We trained and continue to train any local church interested in providing respite care for individuals with dementia,” said Wilson. “We were also instrumental in helping to craft legislation that allowed churches to provide respite care one day a week without a license.”

In her book, Dalme credits Wilson’s leadership and that of many others for getting the program established in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Organizers were clear that they wanted the program to be diverse; they recruited leaders and volunteers from different denominations and serve an ethnically and racially diverse population.

Expansion

Initially the program was offered one day a week for four hours. It served six people and there were 12 volunteers. Participants paid $12 for the program and brought their lunches with them, as did the volunteers.

As word got out, the ministry extended its reach to participants from neighboring communities. To meet the demand, the program increased to two and a half days a week, then later to the current schedule of four days a week. Thanks to donations, lunch is now provided and the daily cost has been reduced to $8, with some participants receiving full scholarships.

With increased participation, adequate space became an issue, but a First UMC Hot Springs couple’s gift resolved the problem. In 2005, Sam and Lucille Clark purchased and donated the old Hot Springs Telephone Company building to the church for The Caring Place’s use. Located a short distance from the church, the building provided the needed square footage, ensuring the success and growth of The Caring Place for many years to come.

A Caring Place client and friend celebrate a birthday.
COURTESY PHOTO

The Caring Place was unique in the beginning; now, its social model has been replicated across the United States. One distinction was the support provided to the individuals caring for their loved ones affected by Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. A monthly support group gave caregivers space to share their experiences and help them overcome some of the isolation and loneliness that can come with this type of caregiving.

Currently the program has 52 volunteers and 58 participants. The staff of eight is led by director Lynn Reeves, who has been with the ministry almost since the start. Over the years, Reeves has seen and heard hundreds of stories and received thanks from many of the families that rely on The Caring Place for their loved ones.

“I can’t think of just one story because there are hundreds,” she said. “Just the other day a family member came in my office and said, ‘Lynn, this is the happiest I’ve seen my husband in three years.’”

Valued ministry

Reeves reflected on the future of The Caring Place ministry in light of the aging population in the United States. She already has seen participants entering the program as young as 58. She’s working to serve more people and to educate the general population about Alzheimer’s.

“We remind people that Alzheimer’s is a disease, not a mental illness,” said Reeves. “We work to keep the participants out of nursing homes so we focus on things they can still do, rather than on their losses. They’ve had so many losses.”

The Rev. David Moseley, senior pastor of First UMC Hot Springs, echoes Reeves’s sentiments.

“This is a great ministry, not so much for what comes from it for us,” he said. “It’s great because of what it does for the participants and their families.”

Moseley added that The Caring Place board of directors recently grew from five to seven members who represent different faith traditions including UMC, Baptist and Jewish.

The Caring Place has an ongoing fundraiser: Individuals can donate furniture and household goods to Godbehere Auction Company in Hot Springs and designate that the proceeds go to the program to provide participant scholarships. The group also produces notecards and an annual calendar featuring participants’ artwork.

Signed copies of Dalme’s book are available at The Caring Place and at First UMC Hot Springs.

For more information about The Caring Place, visit www.thecaringplacehotsprings.com or their Facebook page. If your church is interested in learning how to offer respite care for seniors with dementia, contact Lynn Reeves, 501-623-2881 or caring@cablelynx.com, to arrange a visit or to discuss training.