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‘House of Friends’ helps dementia patients, families

Sept. 19, 2006

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kim Griffis

Dancing is a popular activity at the House of Friends.

A UMNS Feature
By Lilla Marigza*

Louise Sellars and her friends forget sometimes why they are wearing flower leis around their necks. They are dressed for a Hawaiian luau at the “House of Friends.”

All of the “friends” at this weekly gathering suffer from dementia. Some are in various stages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, provides activities designed for seniors like Sellars.

“I talk to a lot of people, and I just enjoy myself,” she says. “It’s helping me — it really is. I am coming out of my shell a little bit.”

The group has time each week for arts, crafts, music, snacks and conversation. Volunteers are close by as participants paint watercolor pictures of Hawaiian scenes.

A volleyball net, with chairs on either side, is set up in one of the three designated meeting rooms. After brief stretching, the friends share a volleyball game, bouncing a balloon across the net. The exercise nourishes both body and mind.

“I love the House of Friends,” Sellars says. “It’s a nice place and a nice group of people. We’re busy from the time we get there until the time we leave.”

Her daughter, Sandy Fritz, says the House of Friends has given her mom a whole new peer group and outlook on life. “I know my mother felt very isolated, like she was the only one experiencing this. Before we found the House of Friends, we were more frightened … more homebound. We had a lot of concerns about my mother not having enough social interaction.”

A weekly respite

Church members say the House of Friends grew out of a support group for families caring for loved ones with dementia. The round-the-clock care these seniors require can pose hardships for families trying to provide that care. The program was designed to give these caregivers a weekly respite. While Sellars enjoys the luau with the friends, her husband and daughter can also enjoy much-needed time off.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kim Griffis

After 56 years of marriage, Louise and Ben Sellars are dealing with Louise's recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.
Fritz, a widow, sold her home to move in with her parents. “I found myself in a position a lot of my peers are finding themselves in,” she says. “We have aging parents that we do not wish to be institutionalized.”

Bethany Care Ministries Pastor David Lutz says the support the program keeps families together by sustaining caregivers who often suffer burnout. “Because it’s 24-7, it makes it extremely difficult for a person who is a caregiver…,” he says. After about three years, they have to put their loved one in a care facility, he says.

Fritz says the weekly program at Bethany United Methodist gives her and her father a break. “For Dad and I, we are much more relaxed. We are better able to cope with the day-to-day things that naturally surround a person with dementia. It gives us a four-hour window every week when we know we are going to have mother in a happy and safe spiritual environment where she is going to be among her peers and engaged in activities that she dearly loves.”

Fritz runs a business from home and uses the weekly break to update her Web site and catch up on orders. Her father, Ben Sellars, likes to play golf and have lunch with a friend. As Ben enjoys his leisure time, he takes comfort in knowing his wife is having fun too. “We are really pleased with her eagerness to go each week.”

The House of Friends is offered, free of charge, to participants of all faiths. The ministry is supported by donations and grants.

Heartbreak and joy

Church members would like to expand the program to reach more families, but the biggest challenge is finding enough volunteers. Burnout can be a problem for them too. The work is rewarding but emotionally exhausting. Pastor Lutz says it’s tough to keep morale up.

“The discouraging part of the program is you know people in the program are not going to get better,” he says. “They are going to deteriorate. After a certain period of time, they leave and go into a care facility, or a number of them have passed away.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kim Griffis

House of Friends participants play balloon volleyball.
Church member Susie Peterson founded the House of Friends ministry after years of caring for her parents, who both suffered from dementia. She recognizes the emotions the volunteers feel when they see participants decline. “It’s caused a lot of tears and a lot of sadness. We have had workshops on grief and loss. We learn along the way, and we grow.”

While the job is demanding, Peterson says a dedicated group of volunteers finds the rewards here week after week. “It brings us a lot of joy to be touching other people’s lives,” she says. The volunteers range in age from 15 to 90. Usually the encouragement they need is found in knowing the difference they are making for the participants and their families.

Louise Sellars gives a big smile at the mention of her weekly visit to the House of Friends. “I love it. I really love it. They could have it every day; it would be fine with me.”

Her daughter says the whole family is grateful for these “friends.” “She is flourishing,” Fritz says, “and because of this respite that we get, Dad and I are flourishing.”

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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