With Songs and Games, Sibley Memorial Hospital Eases the Burdens of Memory Loss

Club Memory expands throughout Washington, D.C.

Published in Dome - Community Issue 2017

In 2011, Marti Bailey launched Club Memory, a support program for people with memory issues and their caregivers. It quickly grew to about 60 participants. Some traveled more than an hour to the sunny and spacious Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church for the only program of its kind in the Washington, D.C., region.

Then Bailey, director of community health at Sibley Memorial Hospital, learned that African-Americans, though twice as likely as Caucasians to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s, had poor access to support services in Washington, D.C. “We had an opportunity to help,” she says.

Since 2014, she has expanded the Sibley-based program from one location to seven, serving more than 540 people in all eight D.C. wards. Three locations also have support groups for caregivers.

To turn opportunity into reality, Bailey won federal grants, with support from the district’s Office on Aging, to hire two community dementia program managers: Sharon Sellers and Shruti Goel. The Sibley Memorial Hospital Foundation also helped fund social worker Mizuki Kojima, a position required for matching the federal grant.

Bailey also asked for and secured the services of two more social workers,  with funding from the Office on Aging. The social workers help people with the greatest needs and the fewest resources connect to services such as home visits for safety adaptations like shower handrails.   

Few experiences are more isolating and terrifying than descending into dementia, both for the person affected and for loved ones. The two-hour Club Memory gatherings provide a respite from the loneliness and agony of memory loss.

The original church site is large enough for six or seven tables, each with its own activity such as a puzzle, art project, trivia game, songs or conversation. Members select what they want to do. 

Sessions in the newer, smaller locations are a little different. They attract as many as 35 participants at a time, including some who don’t have dementia but want information about the disease. Caregivers typically drop off Club Memory participants, instead of staying as they do at the church, because they can’t afford to take time off work.

These sessions in the district-run senior wellness centers, which are free of charge, start with guided meditation, and include practical information and question-and-answer sessions. Then comes the fun—playing Name That Tune, dancing to music from the 1950s and 60s, singing along to Christmas carols, and competing in games like checkers and Scrabble.

“Sometimes we are standing room only,” says Sellers, who shares responsibility for creating and leading the programs with Goel and Kojima. “My challenge is to develop a program that’s reaching everyone.”

Sellers continually invents new ways to engage people. “I choose someone from history to talk about,” she says. “One time I chose Maya Angelou. I don’t challenge them to memorize, but we as a class read several of her poems.” Participants leave with “homework packets” of adult coloring books, word games and Sudoku. 

Evening support groups for caregivers are offered at the Shiloh Baptist Church and Anacostia Library. At those meetings, program leaders answer questions, offer coping tips and remind caregivers to make time for themselves.

Sellers says she tells participants that response times slow as the disease progresses. She suggests they ask their loved ones one question at a time, framed to allow a yes or no answer. The question may have to be repeated, she says.

There’s heartache, but also levity. At one recent meeting, Sellers says, “I suggested that the caregivers try to avoid arguing with their loved ones.”

She pauses. “We all had a good laugh about that.”