Tyler musician Patrick Odom carefully slips on his guitar, adjusts his microphone and prepares to take the stage.
His audience is sedate, almost contemplative. The room is hushed, as spectators watch and wait.
When Odom launches into a classic dance tune from the 1950s, it’s as if an electric current passes through the group.
Toes tap, heads bob as Odom belts out favorites from bygone eras featuring music greats the likes of Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Attendees in sensible shoes surge toward the dance floor, and for the next hour, revisit dance moves from their youth: The Stroll, the Twist, the Bump.
Faces glowing in perspiration and satisfaction, the graying dancers laugh, sing and flirt. One man breaks out a harmonica and joins in the music making.
No, this isn’t an outdoor concert or a reunion of “bobby soxers.”
It’s a day club for people in the early stages of dementia.
And for most, rocking around the dance floor with sweaty strangers is the high point of their week.
In so many ways, this weekly ritual of “rolling back the clock” provides a welcome break in routine from a disease that has no cure.
Dementia, a form of Alzheimer’s, strikes indiscriminately, regardless of age, race or socioeconomic level.
People living with the disease are slowly robbed of intellect and independence, although certain medications can slow its progression.
About 4,000 people living in Smith County are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Experts predict Texas, with an estimated 360,000 cases, could see a 40 percent increase within the next seven years, according to the state’s Health and Human Services Department.
The opportunity to dance to Odom’s music and socialize with others affected with the condition is offered by the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County, a type of “one-stop shop” connecting families to resources.
“Terrific Tuesdays” is the given name for this unique group, offered one day a week at Marvin United Methodist Church to people living with early and middle stages of dementia.
There is a cap on participation, based on space and availability of volunteers.
Day club participants must be able to feed, toilet and respond to certain stimuli to attend.
There is a waiting list and hopes are high that the program can eventually expand to twice a week.
Jamie Huff serves as program director.
Her late grandfather grappled with the disease, making her role a deeply personal mission.
“This is a very special place,” she said. “We had 23 participants last week. Many of them are here for years and we get to know them.”
The familiarity makes it seem like a big family, made up of strangers.
“One in three people know someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” she said. “With the Baby Boomers, five or six million will reach 16 million by 2050.”
There are myriad misconceptions about the condition - mostly that people who afflicted with it are angry, violent and out-of-control, and that’s not always the case, she said.
A FAMILY OF STRANGERS
During a recent Terrific Tuesday meeting, attendees appeared engaged and content.
“These folks are having fun,” Ms. Huff said. “My goal is to give joy to people who are in the last years of their life – to squeeze out every ounce of life while they are here.”
There is always a need for volunteers, who consist largely of community members and nursing students from the University of Texas at Tyler and Tyler Junior College.
No two Tuesdays are exactly the same.
Time is reserved for art, games, food, and, of course, music.
Odom, the musician, said he never tires of helping the audience connect with their past. He’s been at it for seven years and counting.
“It’s really three things for me,” he said. “Coming here, I get to entertain, I get to play the kind of music I want, which is the oldies, and I get to see these folks connect to the music. I just love it.”
During a recent meeting, participants engaged in a game of beach ball volleyball and learning a new skill: making ice cream.
In previous sessions, they tie-dyed clothing for charity and made homemade dog biscuits.
Volunteer Chris Miller of Tyler said she agreed to help out on a limited basis after hearing there was a critical need for helpers.
Eight years later, she’s still lending a hand.
“I come for the sole reason of connecting with the people,” she said. “It’s a joy to be with them and participate. It’s very accepting - we laugh, we tell jokes, we tease each other. We just have a good time together.”
Ms. Miller describes her time at the club as a privilege.
“We love our participants and we do this for their caregivers,” she said. “We see them at their best … the caregivers see them 24-7.”
Ashleigh Gibson, of Lindale, helps care for her mother-in-law, who is very social and enjoys being around people.
She calls the program a lifesaver for caregivers.
“Every time she comes, the music is her favorite,” Mrs. Gibson said, marveling at her loved one’s old school dance moves. “It’s the highlight of her week.”
Mrs. Gibson said it’s difficult to care for an ailing family member at the same time she’s still raising children, but the Alzheimer’s Alliance lends support by connecting them to resources and programming.
“They (the Alliance) are the most amazing group of people,” she said. “They’ve been a real help to our family.”
TWITTER @ TMT _ Jacque