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Region's first You & Me program earns achievement award
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- On a recent hot summer morning, members of the senior center at the Winchester Parks and Recreation Department informally gathered on an outdoor patio where the center's therapy garden grows.
"I think it's so beautiful, and everybody seems to be contributing something to make it so pretty," said Winchester resident, Ellie Shutt, 86.
When asked what might add to the garden, she and Ron Fletcher, 81, of Winchester, had plenty of ideas.
"I'd like to see a rose bush," said Fletcher. "We could make it [the patio] into like a porch, a place where everybody could sit down."
"What about some shade?" said Donna Evans, who works at the Winchester Active Living Center in Jim Barnett Park. The late morning sunlight was beating down on the bare patio floor and shortly did succeed in driving everyone indoors.
"I think that an umbrella would be nice," Shutt said.
The hot weather isn't likely to keep visitors away for long, though.
"We're so happy to have the garden, we'll put up with the heat," Fletcher said. "It's such a beautiful garden."
As the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging gears up for a series of fall fundraisers and awareness programs, recent news of its selection to win a national achievement award is perfect timing.
Program coordinators at the Active Living Center hope the award will help educate the community about their You & Me program for people experiencing early signs of memory loss.
"It's the first award that the program has achieved," said program coordinator Susan Spangler. "It's just for an innovative program."
You & Me is the first program of its kind in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, she said. It can accommodate up to six couples -- those who are showing early signs of Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers.
Care partners, as they're called at You & Me, usually are spouses but might also be a child or another relative, Spangler said.
"We try to give education, help with finding resources, down the road," she said. The program also offers a peer group.
You & Me meets in a classroom at the Active Living Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Care partners meet once a week for an hour, and the rest of the time partners can choose to attend meetings with their loved ones or take respite time, Spangler said.
It's an opportunity for the partners to have some time for themselves, she said.
The program, which Spangler said was modeled after the Brookdale Foundation National Group Respite Program in California, began in April 2010. Spangler and Evans, support group coordinator for You & Me, started marketing and planning for the program in January of last year.
"We do a lot of things that are mentally stimulating," Spangler said, like journaling and completing crossword puzzles and computer exercises. They also take field trips with participants and their care partners and participate in a monthly cooking class through the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
"We keep folks busy, which keeps us busy," Evans said. "We had a vision and we ran with it, and we birthed this program."
The therapy garden is a recent addition to the program, and participants of the program or members of the senior center can enjoy flowers and herbs growing on the outdoor patio, which also has a seating area.
"This garden, this has just been so much fun," Spangler said. She and Evans worked with a horticulture therapist to design the garden on an unused patio outside the building. Charles Ricketts Construction Company LLC and Patton's Masonry Inc. donated labor and materials for the patio project in 2008.
"So we kind of took what had been established previously and we wanted to have a therapy garden," Evans said.
For the garden, Woodbine Farm Market donated herbs, Hortons Nursery donated some plants and big flower pots, and the UPS Store donated packing peanuts to use for drainage in planters.
The Philia Class of First Baptist Church in Winchester donated money to buy supplies.
"Some of the flowers and the pepper plants were started from seeds," Evans said, and members of the senior center contributed plants and materials.
Maintaining the garden also provides joy to participants in You & Me when the weather is nice, Spangler said.
"We realized that the seniors absolutely loved working with the garden," Spangler said.
"They water, they pull weeds," she said. "It's easy for them."
Shutt and Fletcher both contributed plants to the garden. Shutt enjoys the garden, but she frequents the senior center for the community.
"The friendship, things to do," she said. "It keeps us busy. Just the friendship, because everyone seems to love each other."
"We're trying to get the word out," Spangler said. Interest in the program has been growing, she said, but she has larger plans for the future.
"We would love to have our six couples," she said. "We have four couples."
It's a slow process teaching the community about what they do, she said. Other programs around the area offer care for individuals who have more developed cases of Alzheimer's disease.
"Ours is for that earliest stage. We're really trying to do the education and the support," Spangler said. Support is so important, she said, because those living with the disease can feel isolated from the community.
"They may be reluctant to start [with] a program," she said. "It's very helpful to join. It helps you make a plan for yourself.
"It helps you develop a new peer group. ... This kind of helps them find a new circle of friends."
For information about the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging or the You & Me program, call 800-883-4122.