Interactive Zoom sessions a ‘lifesaver’ for patients living with dementia during COVID-19

When the COVID-19 outbreak struck, an adult program for people with dementia was forced to shut down.

“Of course we were early to close because we have a pretty vulnerable population. We worried because those social connections, which we know are so important, that purpose, that structure was taken away,” said Julie Verriest.

Julie manages senior adult services for the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program that is jointly operated by JVS Human Services and Jewish Senior Life. They have locations in Southfield and West Bloomfield. 

She explains dementia is a category of symptoms that can be caused by Alzheimer's disease or vascular issues like strokes, heart attacks, and other health issues. It causes changes in the brain, including memory, mood, executive functioning, and even personality.

“We have a pretty diverse group. It’s open to the whole community. People are there in all stages of their dementia journey so our job is to reach them wherever they are and to really focus on not so much what they’ve lost but what they’ve retained,” she said.

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But closing down due to the health crisis was tough on the program’s regular participants. So Julie brought in-person activities online with interactive Zoom sessions.

"I’ve talked to a couple family care partners who say that there's been quite a progression since we’ve closed and that these Zooms are a lifesaver for them because it’s giving them some time, and a lifesaver for the person because it’s keeping them connected, giving them some structure," she said.

They engage in much if their normal programs, including music, exercise, games, poetry, and trivia.

“Music is something that can reach anyone at any stage, whether they have language or not, they can clap their hands or tap their feet or just listen. For those who need a little something more, it might be conversation. It might be delving into topics,” she said.

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Lately she’s been reading them poetry -- some a little deeper, some that led to discussion, some that got them all laughing. Then they wrote their own.

“They picked kind of a heavy topic, but we got through it. We wrote a poem about “missing you,” it was called. It was about all the losses they felt in their life,” she said.

Because not everyone is in the same stage of their journey with dementia, Julie adds variation to every activity to keep everyone involved and engaged. 

“They’re all so very unexpectedly patient with the technology and they see each other’s faces, which is great, and they hear each other’s voices,” she said. “The people who are a little further along on their dementia journey need some assistance or people to advocate for them, and you see the people who are at an earlier stage jump in and doing those things, assisting them and filling in the gaps and helping them express themselves.”

One daughter said her mom’s demeanor completely changed during the Zoom sessions, becoming animated, smiling -- obviously excited to be seeing Julie and her friends again.

Sam McKnight’s wife Jackie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago.

“It has been fabulous for Jackie. The people who work there are incredibly affectionate and energetic and really engaged with all the participants,” he said.

He said anyone who has someone in their life with dementia knows: “Somebody who shows affection for your partner, your spouse, that makes all the difference in the world.”

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"They’ve been to every program and typically he’ll sit with her and interact with her, and I think he enjoys it as much as she does," Julie said.

The day program is open to people of all religious beliefs who are living with dementia. They hope more people will join the Zoom group -- call Debi Banooni at (248) 320-5417 to learn how. 

“If anyone’s feeling lonely, if a care partner is seeing a bigger progression since we’ve all had to stay in our homes,” Julie said.

Visit jvshumanservices.org/brown-day-program to learn more about the program. Click here to visit their Facebook page.

“This is just the most rewarding part of my week. What a mutual reward it is for me to connect with them,” Julie said.

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