By Gail Hollenbeck
BROOKSVILLE — A local company that trains families caring for loved ones with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia has made its training free to churches in eight Florida counties, including Citrus, Hernando and Pasco.
In August, about 40 members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and residents of Wesleyan Village took the two-hour ABCs of Dementia workshop and were certified "dementia-friendly" by Coping with Dementia, an Inverness-based company that offers the training program. Debbie Selsavage, the company's president, teaches the course. She's also president of the board of Alzheimer's Family Organization, a Spring Hill-based regional nonprofit charity that supports caregivers.
"The churches and congregations have been so powerful in this, because they are an outreach of service anyway," Selsavage said. "That's part of their community base and background."
The training focuses on how dementia affects an individual, including memory loss, vision, hearing and smelling functions, judgment, cognition and manual dexterity — and the resulting changes in behavior and personality.
"We teach caregivers how to interpret and deal with these behaviors for more successful results, leading to less stress for both the person living with dementia and their caregiver," said Ed Youngblood, director of marketing and communication for the company.
They also learn techniques of voice, approach and appropriate touch.
"Our delivery is not a straightforward lecture," Youngblood said. "Debbie has a style that brings humor into her discussion and puts her audience at ease. We encourage Q and A, and we use role play to demonstrate effective techniques of care."
About 25 churches have received the certification since the program began in 2015.
"I had all kinds of favorable comments about it afterwards," said Bonnie Sanford, who heads a caregiver's support ministry at the Wesleyan church, "and many people have asked when we're going to have another one."
Sanford, 78, was a caregiver for her own son who had Sturge-Weber Syndrome for 45 years.
"I've taken care of probably close to 40 people at different times," Sanford said, "so I have a heart for helping people."
When she moved from New York seven years ago and joined the Wesleyan Church, Sanford was caring for a friend's sister, who had Alzheimer's disease. Five years ago, she started a support group at her church.
"We went to our church directory and found 15 people that we knew of that might benefit from it," Sanford said. "There were two men who had wives that they couldn't leave at all, even to go to the bank or get a haircut."
Sanford's group, which is for those with any disability, not just dementia, meets for support while their loved ones are kept safely in a room where they have refreshments and entertainment.
Those who attend are grateful for the respite.
"I had one man who was a minister say our meeting was the highlight of his week," Sanford said. "That was very much of a compliment. If you can make somebody feel that good for one or two hours, then it's worth it."
Sanford is looking forward to a handbook for churches that Coping with Dementia will make available by the end of the year.
"We always leave resources behind after a workshop and invite phone calls if someone runs into a situation, and we can talk them through it," Selsavage said. "We want to be approachable."
To learn more: Dementia awareness and care training is provided free of charge to churches and non-profits by the Alzheimer's Family Organization and Coping with Dementia. Visit coping.today and alzheimersfamily.org or call (352) 422-3663 or (352) 616-0170.