With admiration, Cary Wofford petted a Shetland pony, calling it “gorgeous” and “one of God’s greatest creations.”
Wofford and other participants in the “Wonderful Wednesdays Day Respite Program” sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County were treated to a visit from Shetland ponies, 13 Muscovy baby ducks and a Nubian baby goat named Veronica.
The animals were the star attractions at the weekly program that entertains people with dementia or similar disability while giving their caregivers a four-hour break or respite in the middle of the week.
Shiloh Road Church of Christ allows the Alzheimer’s Alliance to use its facilities for the program for free.
Carol Collins and her daughter, Jessica Jones, brought the animals from their 20-acre working farm at Troup.
“Many people don’t realize how fun and how therapeutic animals can be. They aren’t exposed to them or they’re not around them. We love educating people and letting them have hands on,” Ms. Jones said.
Shirley Pearson peaked in a barrel holding the baby ducks, held one in her hands and exclaimed, “Hi sweetheart. You are adorable. You are so sweet.”
When it pecked at her fingers, she laughed and told the duck, “You can bite me if you want to. Go ahead.”
Later, Ms. Pearson rode in a horse-drawn cart around the parking lot.
“I thought it was wonderful,” she said.
After his turn for a cart ride, Al Cook said, “I hadn’t ridden in one of those in a long, long time. It was fun and kind of bouncy. We had a good ride.”
Dewayne Gandy said, “I didn’t know we were going to do that today, but I’ve enjoyed it.”
He marveled that the goat milled around but did not wander off. Then looking at the baby ducks, he said, “I like them … I’d like to have a hundred of them.”
Bryan Ross grasped a baby duck in his hands and remarked, “I don’t think I ever held a duck that small.” Then he told the duck, “you sweet thing.”
The theme for the 15 to 18 participants and a similar number of faithful volunteers who come every week to assist with the program was “horsing around.”
It started with a snack breakfast, an orientation, then arts and crafts that involved decorating a hard paper horse head. Sewing or lacing the mane involved hand and eye coordination, noted Jamie Huff, Day Club director and volunteer coordinator.
Challenging their memory, she led participants in talking about whether they had ever ridden a horse and what sports, TV shows and songs use horses.
“We do a lot of things to help them to brainstorm and to search in their mind for a word they may not have used in a long time,” Ms. Huff said.
The guys could have their picture taken dressed in real leather chaps, a rope and bandana.
The program has a different theme each week, such as fine arts, music, long-term memory trivia and community service. Senior care companies rotate donating lunch. There’s musical entertainment and everybody dances.
“We just have a really good time,” Ms. Huff said.
“It’s proven that if a person with dementia retains regular intervals of social and cognitive stimulation, they can actually be cared for at home longer before placed in nursing home care.”
She added that the program helps participants “stay in a better mood when they get home. They are more compliant with their caregiver and it just helps them to be happy. They deserve to get together with friends they have come to know and we just have a great time together.”
Dottie Buie, a retired registered nurse, has volunteered more than a year, saying it’s a pleasure. “I just love people and like to work with people who have a kind of dementia. They are gracious wonderful people,” she said.
The program, Ms. Buie said, helps them keep their mind active.
“It is a retreat from their usual home environment. They have an edge to life with this program. It’s a wonderful thing that the Alzheimer’s Alliance has and it gives respite to the caregivers.”
The alliance has operated the respite program since the early 1990’s, Ms. Huff said. Other services provided by the alliance include education seminars, family support groups, in-service training for senior care companies, programs for civic organizations and a tracking program called Project Lifesaver that helps locate dementia patients if they get lost.