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Students enjoy helping Alzheimer's patients

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- The warm, home-like environment makes it easier for students to feel comfortable with the Alzheimer's patients they're helping.

Whitney Blackburn smiles as she casually visits with a woman spending the day in Albany Outreach Center's Alzheimer's Caregivers Time Out program.

Blackburn, a second-year Darton College student and early childhood education major, is one of two psychology students who volunteered at the center recently. Her friendly personality helps break the ice between her and the woman. She instinctually touches her hand to further enhance and encourage the conversation.

Albany Outreach Center Director Virginia Griffin recently spoke to students enrolled in Darton's Introduction to Abnormal Psychology class taught by Reba Goodin. Griffin also spoke to some of the school's nursing students about volunteering in the Alzheimer's Caregivers Time Out (ACTO) program.

"This exposure to ACTO benefits the students in several ways," said Goodin, an assistant professor of psychology. "They are exposed to possible careers in social service. They learn about resources available in the community (since) many of them have family members with Alzheimer's and they have valuable volunteer experience for their resumes."

Blackburn said volunteering at ACTO has provided the 2008 Baconton Charter School graduate a better understanding of her grandmother and great aunt.

"I've learned that people that suffer from Alzheimer's (disease) always have something to say; you just have to listen," said Blackburn, who competes on the Darton women's cross country team. "It may not make sense at times, but if you listen you may start to understand what they are saying to you. Like one of them said she didn't know her children's names, but knows that she loves them. I thought it was really sweet and kind of touching."

Nick Hilton is another Darton student who gained invaluable experience and insight into a family member's Alzheimer's condition through the volunteer class opportunity. Hilton, 43, worked 17 years at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. before the Albany plant recently closed. After watching his wife graduate with a nursing degree in May, Hilton is following her footsteps by pursing a nursing degree from the Albany college. Hilton's father, Jack, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"I was looking to help and volunteer and really I feel that I was the one that got help," he said. "It was just a blessing in my heart. You think about Alzheimer's patients and nursing homes and it's just a sad, sad place. I was going in thinking that I will do whatever they want me to do. I'll clean up, whatever. But Virginia (Griffin and her staff are) just wonderful people. They treat all their clients with the utmost dignity and respect. They don't rush anybody. They truly cater to them. I don't even want to call them patients, they're clients."

The Albany Outreach Center was started 21 years ago by a coalition of downtown churches, Griffin said. It is an interdenominational ministry of First United Methodist Church in cooperation with Byne Memorial Baptist, First Baptist, St. Paul's Episcopal, First Presbyterian and Porterfield Memorial United Methodist churches. Griffin said the center still receives $35,000 annually from First United Methodist and the building is rent free.

"The bulk of our funding is from SOWEGA Council on Aging," Griffin said. "It pays for staff and the rest (of the funds) have to be raised ourselves."

Alzheimer's Caregivers Time Out program provides families and other caregivers a five-hour break from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays from caring for their loved ones who suffer from the incurable degenerative and terminal form of dementia. Families drive their loved ones to the Albany Outreach Center, which is located downtown at 314 N.

Jefferson St.

"Short-term memory goes first; long-term goes last," Griffin said. "In their mind, they may see themselves as 25 and not 75, so they don't recognize themselves. They don't recognize their husband. That's why we're well-earned respite. We do five hours and they do 19 hours. They don't have to worry."

Darton psychology major Kara Maples said she appreciated the practical knowledge she acquired while volunteering at ACTO.

"I've learned and read about this, but down here I hear the stumbling of the words," said Maples, who played Mayella Ewell in Theatre Albany's "To Kill a Mockingbird" production in February. "It's really good experience and no doubt I feel good about it from helping. I feel like I'm helping because I talk to them and they talk to me. I've played piano for them and they sang with me."

Activities Director Becky Wagner said having Darton students volunteer in the Alzheimer's Caregivers Time Out program has been a great benefit.

"The clients appreciate that the young people are involved," Wagner said. "I've heard them say, 'I'm glad to see the young people.' We try to keep the center as much like home as possible. When the students come here, they immediately feel comfortable with them. You hear them laugh, talk with them and enjoy each other's company.

"It's a great way to get their experience," she added.