Learning to Help People with Alzheimer’s

By age 65, nearly one in eight Americans will be diagnosed with some form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause, affects more than 5 million people in the United States alone. As the disease progresses, short-term memory becomes permanently impaired, leading to profound loneliness and alienation. Last week, during an absorbing field trip to an area medical center, Chapin’s Class 5 students took the first steps toward making a genuine difference in the lives of individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

As volunteers with the Sweet Readers program, an international initiative that pairs students with individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease, groups of Class 5 students will spend an hour every Tuesday morning for five weeks at the 80th Street Residence, where they will collaborate with their senior “partners” on arts-based projects like creating collages, playing music and writing poetry. This is the sixth year that Chapin has partnered with Sweet Readers. Chapin students are the youngest to participate in the program out of 16 partner schools. 

To prepare for this valuable service-learning opportunity – and to best assist the individuals who live at 80th Street Residence – Class 5 students and teachers traveled to Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine to participate in a captivating introductory presentation. Filing into the front rows of the ground-floor Goldwurm Auditorium, the eager students took their seats in the spacious theater. Students from three other local schools were also in attendance.

Over the course of a lively hour, the audience learned of Sweet Readers’ inception. In 2011, Karen Young and her daughter Sophie, then in fifth grade, saw that Sophie’s grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, responded positively when her granddaughter read aloud to her. Ms. Young and Sophie then began reading to other residents of the grandmother’s senior center, and Sweet Readers steadily evolved from there. Today, the program serves thousands of seniors in five U.S. cities and several locations abroad.

“Our goal is to discover the person behind the disease,” Ms. Young told the students. “We are changing the face of Alzheimer’s by connecting generations. Sweet Readers provides tools, scientific knowledge, training and engagement.”

Dr. Linda DeCherrie, a member of the Sweet Readers Board and the parent of two Chapin students, also gave brief remarks. “I’m a geriatrician, which is like a pediatrician, except I take care of older people,” she said. “It is very important to me that you can volunteer with Sweet Readers.”

To help the students grasp what Alzheimer’s looks like inside the brain, Ms. Young invited a prominent neurosurgeon, Dr. Howard Fillit of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, to share his medical expertise. He explained that short-term memory deficiencies are caused by plaque build-up in the brain’s hippocampus, which he illustrated by showing a series of fascinating slides.

As their brains continue to deteriorate, it is vital that these individuals remain connected to family, friends and their communities. “They still need love even if they can’t put their shoes on,” remarked Dr. Fillit. Consistent and caring human interaction –through words, touch and eye contact – has been proven to slow the course of this devastating disease.

Before their initial visit to the 80th Street Residence in mid-October, the Chapin students will receive additional training from Humanities teacher Margaret George, who is an official Sweet Readers facilitator. The sessions will comprise role-playing scenarios, a question-and-answer period and helpful tips for success.

Chapin’s theme, “Listen with Compassion, Act with Courage,” ties in beautifully with Sweet Readers’ mission to empower young people to help those in need feel supported and valued. Here are a few inspiring comments from students as they look ahead to this extraordinary opportunity:

“I feel really confident, excited and nervous.”

 “It can be hard to talk to sick and old people. I think we should try to listen really hard and pay attention to them.”

“It’s a good opportunity to learn how it feels to have Alzheimer’s and how it can damage people’s lives.”

“It’s important to listen with compassion and to always be supportive, even if they seem bewildered and confused.”

“You should remember that we are doing something really nice because the people may not get many visitors, and to remember that they have feelings. We are making them happy.”

Browse photos from the presentation below: