Mommy and Me teams with GEM to provide unique therapy

Mommy and Me teams with GEM to provide unique therapy

Gentle Expert Memory Care Adult Day Services (GEM) is a local non-profit with a mission of helping people living with dementia and their caregivers better cope with this debilitating disease.

Part of that mission is the once-a-month Harmony Café, a respite event that includes chair exercises, lunch, an ability-appropriate craft and live music. The lineup of events is specifically designed to provide mental, physical and social stimulation, and give a little relief to caregivers who are happy to meet others in their position.

In that sense, it’s a mission not dissimilar to that of Outer Banks Mommy and Me. At Mommy and Me, local mothers (and sometimes fathers) of children up to five years of age meet several times a month for play dates, which usually include a craft, hike or other activity. It’s a chance for the parents to socialize and for the kids to get some mental, physical and social stimulation as well.

For the past six months, the Harmony Café has been bringing these two groups together, with the little ones “volunteering” and helping the seniors.

“I was trying to think of ways for our group to give back,” says Chandra Diesel, the Mommy and Me Community Outreach Organizer. “I really wanted to get the little ones out into the community and foster volunteerism from an early age.”

And after Diesel attended one of GEM’s fundraisers, she realized that the Harmony Café would be a great fit. “There’s a proven positive link between young kids interacting with seniors,” she says.

The research backs her up. Studies from the American Public Health Association link higher rates of socialization to lessened dementia symptoms, and one recent study by the North American Menopause Society linked higher memory recall in seniors to more time spent with their grandchildren.
If that data isn’t convincing enough, a glace around the room during Harmony Café would sell almost anyone on the merits of people with dementia getting to spend some time with young children.
“You saw their smiles,” said GEM’s Executive Director Gail Sonnesso, when asked if having Mommy and Me volunteers at the Harmony Café helps. “Some of these people don’t get to see children, because their grandchildren are grown or live too far to visit. What we try to do at GEM is just enrich the lives of people, and this is one more way to do it.”

During Harmony Café the seniors and kids play catch with balloons, sing and dance together, and help each other with their crafts. And, yes, there is no shortage of smiles.

But the benefit isn’t solely to the seniors.

“It’s been really good for the kids too,” says Diesel. “You see a lot of kids that started out shy are doing a lot better since they started coming here.”

One such case is that of soon-to-be three-year-old Ava Predom, whose mom Rachel serves on the board of Mommy and Me and has been bringing Ava to volunteer at the Harmony Café every month. The first time Ava came to Harmony Café, she remained rather reserved until the balloon toss game, when she snatched a balloon and hid under a chair with it, refusing to come out. But at this past Saturday’s Harmony Café, Ava was playing catch, smiling and laughing with the seniors and other children.

“She’s doing so much better,” says Predom. “It’s a great volunteer opportunity. She doesn’t have a lot of older people in her life. I tell her that we’re going to see ‘the grandmas and the grandpas.”

Angelo, Gail’s husband and GEM co-founder, fondly recalls the time he started playing the alphabet song on the piano. “It was like somebody threw a switch,” says Angelo. Soon, everyone in the room, kids and seniors, were singing their ABC’s together.

It’s stories like that that keep Mommy and Me volunteers coming back every month, and GEM is happy to have them.

“The little children give folks so much joy, and it’s good for the little ones to see the older people,” says GEM volunteer Susan Darling.
“It has brought a lot of shared joy, and that’s really the whole point,” says Diesel.