All Saints' Episcopal Church brings the community together with a unique approach to Alzheimer's support.

MIAMI – A sense of serenity quickly settled around those gathered at the All Saints' Episcopal Church Wednesday morning for its inaugural 'Remembering on the Route' Alzheimer's support group.

Soft yellow tablecloths and small bouquets of garden flowers created a kind of bright cheeriness, while the sun's light became a soft, warm glow through the stained glass windows of the parish.

A gentle hum of easy conversation blended almost seamlessly with the playlist of classic songs subtly floating in the background as attendees and organizers took turns confessing that none of them had known what exactly to expect. What they also shared was a collective need to be there, remembering and working together while facing the disease processes of Alzheimer's and Dementia.

A Community Mission

All Saints' Rev. Mary Koppel announced the launch of the church's new Alzheimer's service mission in early August, but planning had already been in the works for months.

Koppel said All Saints' congregant Linda Smith, a former nurse who also served as the caregiver for her late father and her in-laws, is who recognized in herself the calling to be a catalyst for a faith initiative addressing community needs with Alzheimer's and Dementia.

In partnership with the Tulsa arm of the Alzheimer's Association and Integris Miami, the church then put together a plan for an ongoing series of learning sessions and social support groups. All free to the community.

To begin, All Saints' hosted its first community education program, "10 Signs of Alzheimer's Disease," Aug. 23 where the Alzheimer's Association shared common warning signs associated with Alzheimer's/Dementia, along with information on getting a proper diagnosis and several resource options.

On Sept. 13, the church continued with the next leg of its mission hosting its first 'Remembering on the Route' gathering, a social support group that provides a place for those with Alzheimer's or Dementia and their caregivers to come for support, food, and fun.

'Remembering on the Route' is modeled in the style of what is known as 'Memory Cafes,' a support group structure with a social twist that has its origins in the Netherlands. The idea behind the cafes is to provide a safe and comfortable space where caregivers and their loved ones can socialize, listen to music, play games, and enjoy other activities outside of their normal routines.

The gathering also provides another opportunity for caregivers to find mutual support and exchange information.

All Saints' congregant and Population Health Coordinator, Jordan Barlow and Community Wellness Coordinator, Whitney McGhee provided a light lunch, music, and information packets as representatives of Integris Miami.

Barlow explained that Integris was supporting the initiative, at no cost to All Saints' or the community, as a part of the health provider's CHIP (Community Health Initiative Program).

Lashondia Horn with the Alzheimer's Association served as the facilitator for Wednesday's event, leading group discussions and activities aimed at both educating attendees and encouraging positive social interactions.

Remembering Together

Among those in attendance were husband and wife Art Bunn and Carol Ann Goodwin. Bunn, a Marine veteran, served in Korea with Goodwin's husband and reconnected with her at a military reunion years later.

Each had recently lost their spouses when they met again. Bunn having lost his first wife after an eight-year progressive battle with Alzheimer's. A courtship commenced, and soon they were married.

Not long after, Goodwin was diagnosed with early-stage Dementia, and Bunn again found himself in the dual role of husband and caregiver. He said his previous experiences have helped, but he knew it was vitally important to seek support and "get a refresher" on staying a strong and supportive caretaker.

"People need to be reminded," said Bunn. "There is so much happening, and we need to learn again about kindness, compassion, and patience."

Bunn said his wife is very forthright about her Dementia, letting people know when she finds herself struggling and being open about the disease.

"I really think the veil is being lifted these days," said Bunn. "It is not the way it was before, with the stigma. She (Goodwin) will come right out and say, 'I have dementia,' if something gets confused in conversation or she forgets names. She's from here, and she knows a lot of people, but sometimes she forgets names now, so she just tells them."

During the day's activities, Koppel and Horn asked those gathered to share a memory they have of a sunny day. Goodwin recalled with ease her days playing the green at the former Miami Golf & Country Club.

Later, Goodwin shared another of her joys, treating everyone to a duet with her husband of the hymn 'One Pair of Hands' - first accompanied by a version sung by Elvis, before opting to sing together acapella.

The moment was a special one, bringing a hush to the room as the couple's voices melded and Goodwin's face lit up with contentment at singing the praise song.

Stronger As One

The messages throughout the day were ones of openness, hope, love, and support. Several in attendance had not been touched by Alzheimer's or Dementia directly but wished to extend support to their community members and were there to learn more.

Horn encouraged those gathered to share their experiences from the day and urge those they knew could benefit or who would want to contribute to attend in the future.

"I can tell people these groups are good. That they are important, and they can help," said Horn. "But they would rather hear it from you. They want to hear from the person who is going through this."

Koppel offered a sobering reminder, while also demonstrating the strength to be found in faith and community.

"What we need to remember is that this will one day affect all of us. Us or someone we know," said Koppel. "If we are honest, we probably already know someone in our church or our community who needs our help. We will all one day be kneeling beside someone with Alzheimer's, and it is up to us to support them."

Koppel added that she was eager to see more of the community participate and was excited for what was ahead and how it would evolve.

"Honestly, this is still evolving, and we are learning with the community as we go," said Koppel. "We just want people to know that we are here and providing a resource. It's important that they know there is a place to come and we are working on how to best reach out to the community to do that. The program lets us figure out what those coming here need, and I want to see it continue and get better and better for everyone."

The next free educational session will be held Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. The Alzheimer's Association will be on hand again presenting a program about healthy living in the prevention and management of Alzheimer's/Dementia.

All Saints' is located at 225 B St. NW in Miami. For more information call 918-542-3662 or visit http://allsaintsmiami.epiok.org/.

Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Contact her at dballard@miaminewsrecord.com and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.