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Respite program fills a void

Providing some relief for caregivers is crucial aspect of program
by: Vern Uyetake, Alexis Burris plays while her sister Lydia listens at a recent session of the ACC Respite Program. Talented volunteer entertaineers like the Burris sisters have helped make the program a success.

Four hours a week can make a huge difference in the lives of people caring for an aging loved one suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

That is why the Respite Program has been such a valuable service at the Lake Oswego Adult Activity Center for the past 13 years.

'We have a busy afternoon here,' said Berta Derman, the ACC's social services supervisor for the past 16 years. 'This program has enormous impact in terms of caregivers.

'It provides them precious, precious time, and they're constantly telling us how important the program is.'

'For many this is the only respite they have,' said Dana Tassos, who has facilitated the ACC's outreach program for caregivers for the past six years and previously served as respite specialist. 'It's only four hours off a week from responsibilities, but what I hear a lot from caregivers is they don't know what they would do without the Respite Program.'

To illustrate what it is like for a caregiver to help an aged parent who suffers from severe cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer's, a stroke or vascular difficulties, Derman points out the phrase 'A 36-hour day.'

'It is indeed that,' Derman said. 'So with this program, even if it's just for four hours, they can sleep, shop, have lunch with a friend. It also lets their parents have an enjoyable afternoon with games, exercise and a nice snack.'

The usual Thursday afternoon program for the Respite Program is something like this: A seated exercise, welcoming of guests, a break (including walks on days of nice weather), a snack (chocolate pudding is a big favorite), conversation time, a game (such as bingo or an activity like making a banner) and finally a quiet time where the 10 or 12 program members solve crossword puzzles as a group.

It certainly helps to have experienced leadership from Derman, who has been with the program from the beginning - 'I feel like it's my baby' - and respite specialists Carolyn McMath and Peggy Berger.

However, the Respite Program could not exist without volunteers. Folks like Mary Jo Burke, who provides dog therapy once a month, and talented piano-playing sisters Lydia and Alexis Burris, whose recent performance drew rave reviews.

'It was the most relaxing afternoon I've had in a hundred years,' said one impressed volunteer.

One of the most remarkable volunteers is young Jeremy Rozansky, who started volunteering for the Respite Program at age 12 and is still coming on Thursday afternoons at age 16. Derman is quite proud of him.

'Jeremy just loves coming here,' she said. 'He won the award as Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce Youth Volunteer of the Year. He's a National Honor Society student. He's done 104 hours of volunteer work here.'

'I originally thought I would stop doing this after I had my Bar Mitzvah,' said Jeremy, a junior at Lake Oswego High School. 'But I kept on doing it.'

Why?

'It's tough. But I enjoy interacting with them. I'm a teacher, but I'm a learner at the same time.'

Originally, he had a deeply personal reason for becoming a Respite Program volunteer.

'My great grandmother had horrible Alzheimer's disease,' Rozansky said. 'When I decided to do volunteer work, I decided to do something at this place.'

'It takes a special person to volunteer,' Derman said. 'Some days are great fun. Other days are harder. But we've been lucky. We haven't had a lot of behavior problems.'

The caregivers and parents are lucky to have volunteers like Jeremy and lucky to have something like the Respite Program.

'Homecare is very expensive, and for this community this program is very affordable,' Tassos said.

At the fee of $20 per four hours, the program fits well within most people's budgets. Even then, Derman noted, 'We don't turn anyone away.'

Making the ACC Respite Program even more valuable is, as Derman said, 'there's not a lot out there.'

There are a few similar programs in Milwaukie, Wilsonville, Northwest Portland, and the Robison Nursing Facility. However, other programs have had to close for financial or other reasons.

The situation elsewhere is much worse. Derman said there are some states that do not have a single such program.

Meanwhile, the ACC Respite Program has been able to acquire enough loans to stay in business, and Derman says she even has hopes of expanding the program beyond one afternoon a week.

'This program is very special and very needed,' Derman said. 'And it's something that will be needed for many years in the future. With the Baby Boomers getting older, it's good that programs like this are in place.

'They're working to slow diseases like Alzheimer's, but who knows if they'll ever have a cure? It's important that families have an alternative place outside the home to care for their loved ones.'

ACC executive director Brenda Suteu said, 'This is one of my favorite programs. It will always have a special place in my heart.'

The Respite Program truly is special, and Suteu and Derman want the caregivers of the community to know about it and take advantage of it.

'Sometimes they wait until it's too late,' Derman said. 'We want them to get that rest.'

To volunteer or find out more about the Respite Program, or other programs at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center, call 503-635-3758. The center is located at 505 G Ave. in Lake Oswego.