As a 17-year-old high school student in Missouri, my classmates and I were obligated to volunteer in the community. I applied to the local Jewish Center for the Aged, where I developed a warm relationship with Rose, who lived in the protective environment of the closed wing.
Rose would joyfully introduce me each week to her husband, though his particular identity shifted from visit to visit. We smiled and laughed together; she was always animated and grateful for my company.
I thought about Rose recently, when I met 30 staff members from the Margery Kohrman Saving Memory program, a unique JDC initiative that provides training and support to home care staff in the former Soviet Union (FSU) who work with people with Alzheimer's disease.
I was thrilled to meet these dedicated staff members, who are providing the first services of this nature in their region. They are also changing attitudes and social perceptions.
They had come to Israel from their respective bases in the FSU for an advanced training seminar, an opportunity to look at new, creative treatment methodologies (like music and doll therapy), exchange best practices, and prevent burnout. But the most moving experience was to watch them excitedly share stories of their clients' progress—having found colleagues who could really appreciate the challenges and hard-won success inherent in their life-changing work.
As I've traveled in the FSU on JDC’s behalf, I've learned that there are few residential care options for the elderly, and no government benefits for those with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Sufferers are often isolated and alone, or might have an elderly spouse as their primary caregiver.
But family members, and even our skilled Hesed staff do not always have the knowledge to assess and diagnose these degenerative ailments—and may not recognize certain behaviors as signs of illness. This was the void JDC aimed to fill in 2010, when the Saving Memory program began.
Today, the program benefits some 370 elderly Hesed clients, over 200 of whom receive weekly visits from specially-trained home care staff. Through personalized intervention programs, staff members engage them in activities designed to preserve their functional capabilities and improve their quality of life.
I thought about Rose again when I heard about Raisa, a client in Ukraine who began having problems with her memory in 2010. Unlike many other clients, Raisa is aware of her deteriorating state. Though she rarely recognizes her home care assistant, when she sees the program materials, she relaxes and gets down to work, determined to continue recording her memories in a book for her grandson.
As her assistant explained, "Raisa understands this is the greatest gift she can give her grandchild, since her memories represent who she is; by saving her memories, we are saving her life." And that, in a nutshell, is the purpose that guides this important new program.
A senior associate with JDC’s Israel-based FSU team, Flo Low travels to the field frequently to coordinate unique initiatives.
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