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Support available for families affected by Alzheimer’s

For 33 years the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders support group Memory Makers has provided a place where families with a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can go to seek support, share their frustrations and learn from each other about what resources are available to them in Oxford.

The group was started by Jo Ann O’Quin. Working in mental health as a clinical psychologist in 1985, she taught a graduate course at the University of Mississippi on the “Psychological Aspects of Aging,” that led to her and her students conducting research and holding a community forum at the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library.

“That’s when the support group was birthed and formally started with a meeting a couple of months later.

“We have been told that we may be the longest continuous Alzheimer’s group in the nation, as many start and stop over the years,” O’Quin said.

The group is for those caring for a loved one with memory loss, whether true Alzheimer’s or related dementia.

“The primary caregivers and their family or friends,” O’Quin said, “Daughters, sons, daughters-in-law, husbands, wives and friends and even grandchildren all have attended over the years.”

Bill and Dianne Arnold attended the group when they moved to Oxford. Dianne was working with the Department of Mental Health’s Alzheimer’s division and had run a longtime support group in Cleveland, where she also started a respite program after caring for her own father who had dementia.

“One night after a particularly emotional group meeting with several adult children caring for their parents 24 hours a day while balancing their work and other responsibilities, Bill said ‘we have to start a day respite program,’” O’Quin said. “I had tried to do promote day services for years and had limited success so this was a blessing and I eagerly worked with this remarkable couple to find funding.”

The Arnolds secured a small grant from the city of Oxford after meeting with then-Mayor Pat Patterson and First Presbyterian Church offered a room to use.

Memory Makers was officially launched in 2010.

Eventually, the day respite program grew and moved to its current location off Heritage Drive.

The program is held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursdays and costs $20 a day, which includes breakfast and lunch. There are scholarships available for those who demonstrate a financial need.

Each morning, participants arrive at a festive setting, with flowers, colorful plates, napkins and decorations with healthy snacks readily available.

“Each day we engage our participants in meaningful programming such as exercise, art, brain stretching and music,” said Memory Makers Director Tracy Morgan. “Our philosophy is that ‘nobody wants to go to daycare, but everyone likes to go to a party,’ so we have fun every day and we are a happy place.”

A nonprofit organization, Memory Makers relies on funding from the city, Lafayette County, state grants, fundraisers and donations from the public.

The more than 100 volunteers who help run the program are also essential to its success.

“We rely on community support and volunteers for daily functions, soup donations and we rely on in-kind donations of regularly used items to offset program costs,” Morgan said. “We have more than 100 individuals from the community and university to provide more than 2,000 volunteer hours a year. We could not continue without this support.”

Memory Makers provides safe, failure-free opportunities for socialization for individuals with memory loss, and to provide respite for their caregivers who may be overwhelmed and may need time for themselves. “Our days are full of positive interaction between participants, staff and volunteers,” Morgan said. “Daily, we all learn from each other and laugh and smile with each other, which is why it is a wonderful place for everyone involved”

Morgan said visitors who wish to learn more about the program are welcome.

Providing resources

Shortly after moving to the new location, O’Quin found an opportunity to reach another goal of hers to start a central place for people to obtain information and resources.

“While Dianne was developing Memory Makers day respite program, we also established the Caregiver Resource Center that is housed together,” O’Quin said. “We have provided numerous hours of free family counseling and informational resources over the years and we try to keep lots of current information on resources in the community about assisted living options, home-care services, hospice in addition to information on dementia.”

In 2000, O’Quin started the annual Care for Aging Relatives Effectively Fair and Workshop, which was held every year for 10 years.

“Out of that, the university staff asked if I could start a daytime meeting,” O’Quin said. “I have provided a light lunch meeting since for anyone caring for an older adult, so there are two options for meeting each month to get resources and education.”

That group now meets off-campus in an assisted living community that donates the lunches and space.

More could be done

O’Quin said Oxford has come far since the original support group was formed and the only resource available was the local nursing home.

“We are so fortunate to have the state veterans home, three assisted living communities, and numerous home care and hospice services,” O’Quin said. “Although some communities have adult day care programs, Memory Makers is one of only a handful of respite programs in the state and we were developed by the DMH to serve as a model for others.”

However, there’s always more that can be done to provide help to Alzheimer’s patients and their families, she said. Oxford has yet to have a Geriatrician – a board-certified doctor to work in geriatrics or geriatric-psychiatric inpatient care.

“I also would love to see the ‘Greenhouse Project’ type of small group nursing home care expand to this area; United Methodist Senior Services in Tupelo was the first in the nation to provide this dignified model of care that all deserve at the end of life,” O’Quin said. “We also continue to need affordable housing and in-home care and it dismays me when I see we have a waiting list for those who need Meals on Wheels and in-home care in our community.”