Two hours of love: Connect Camp provides respite for dementia caregivers
WEATHERFORD — Two hours may not seem like a lot to the average person, but to those caring for people with dementia, 120 minutes of free time is a gift you can’t put a price tag on.
Weatherford resident Cathy Honzell knows that value all too well after caring for her mother, Mary Ellen Guay, who died in December at age 93 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
During the last two years of Guay’s life, Honzell was blessed with a respite twice a month, giving her time to go shopping, have lunch with friends, or enjoy quiet time alone while her mother attended Connect Camp, a free service at St. Stephen Parish that offers caregivers a respite for personal time while providing an uplifting environment for people with dementia. Volunteers at the camp, known as “buddies,” assist with a variety of exercises and social interaction for the “campers.”
“They keep telling you to take care of yourself, but you don’t have time,” Honzell said, recalling the advice she would receive from others.
Guay was the inspiration for the program, which started after Honzell began bringing her mother to Carol Holmes’ fitness sessions held at the church.
“She would talk, say things over and over. I felt like it disturbed the class,” Honzell said.
Holmes said the mother’s chatting was not at all disruptive, but she could tell it was stressful for Honzell, so she reached out to the parish with the idea for a class for those with dementia. The program was approved and began in November 2017.
Connect Camp, a nonprofit organization, is held the first and third Thursday of the month from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at St. Stephen in Weatherford. It’s free and open to all community members, regardless of religious affiliation.
The session starts with a prayer which is also in sign language. During the two hours, campers are paired with buddies for activities including breathing and relaxation exercises, music and entertainment, crafts, and snacks.
Each session is theme-based and incorporates either a current holiday or nature, such as trees or birds. During one camp, a park ranger came out dressed as a cowboy for storytelling and poems. Another camp included a Celtic theme, where everyone dressed in green and enjoyed special music by a harp and flute player.
During enrollment, an information card is filled out so camp organizers know the background of the campers as well as special moments in their lives.
“We try and draw on everything that would bring out moments of joy and special memories,” Holmes said.
Holmes said the campers’ backgrounds are diverse, with past occupations including everything from psychologists and chiropractors to teachers, postal workers, and a rancher’s wife.
Guay, for example, was in the Navy and served in WWII, which was followed by a career as a radio talk show host, the first woman commander at the American Legion in Weatherford, a writer, photographer, editor, and public information specialist.
“They once had incredible responsibilities in life,” Holmes said of their charges. “All of their past is something that we draw on. It’s really important.”
Holmes said the sessions help feed the campers’ senses to trigger things of interest.
“We found out how beautifully creative they are,” she said.
Gus Villanueva, a buddy at the camp, began volunteering because his mom suffers from Alzheimer’s.
“I took her several times and saw how much she enjoyed it,” Villanueva said. “My mom returned to California but after seeing Carol and the buddies do their magic out of love, I felt this would be a great ministry to support.”
Villanueva said helping campers participate in the activities is truly a blessing.
“Simple things like talking with them, helping them do the stretching by showing them, assisting when they need to get up from their chair… we do anything to make them comfortable,” he said.
Villanueva, who will be 60 this year, said he feels blessed for all God has given him to support his family and hopes a program like this will be available when he gets older.
“Giving back is how I respond to our Lord’s call to love our neighbor,” he said. “Through the last several years I have grown in my Catholic faith. I now see things I used to pass by and failed to recognize as an opportunity to serve.”
He said one of the best parts is witnessing the love of the buddies for the campers, which is “amazing and contagious.”
“Seeing God’s love through the lives of others will change your life,” he said. “I strongly recommend others to get involved — you will make a difference for the campers.”