Men play valued role as volunteers in Best Friends program

Volunteer Jerry Raider, left, walked down a hallway of Second Presbyterian Church with program participant Sam Isaacs.
Volunteer Jerry Raider, left, walked down a hallway of Second Presbyterian Church with program participant Sam Isaacs.

Best Friends Day Center has dispelled the notion that care-giving and nurturing are only for women.

The program at Second Presbyterian Church offers participants with some form of dementia a place to make friends and enjoy activities by being paired with a trained volunteer. Twenty-seven of about 100 volunteers at Best Friends are men.

The Best Friends approach, developed by Virginia Bell, requires volunteers to spend at least four hours a week building a peer relationship with someone experiencing irreversible memory loss.

As Bell describes the relationship between volunteer and participant, "Lift the dementia, and you'll find a real person."

According to Alzheimer's Disease International, more than 35 million people worldwide live with dementia, 5.3 million in the United States, 80,000 in Kentucky.

More women than men have Alzheimer's, but that is attributed to the fact women live longer. Gender is not considered a risk factor.

Baby boomers are demanding new ideas and better dementia care, said Bell. Best Friends' goal is to provide high-quality respite care.

Most of the program's male volunteers are "early retired," such as recent volunteer Jim Riley. But the program also brings in students, including young men who volunteer.

Bobby Potts, the program's volunteer coordinator, sees participants' faces "light up" when volunteers arrive. He said it's important the volunteer experience not be a sad one. A normal day at Best Friends is upbeat and active, with exercise, music and lots of engagement.

One volunteer who has been with the program since 2003 is Jerry Raider. Raider sits with his friend Sam Isaacs during a round of Christmas carol Bingo, and together they listen for words that match his Bingo card.

The next group activity is a stroll though the church. The volunteer and the participant are looking for items that remind them of Christmas carols.

Raider engages Sam in conversation about the Christmas tree in the hallway and the bell on a small sleigh.

They spend a few minutes with others in the group resting in the sanctuary of the church. Then everyone returns to the activity room for dancing and singing.

Like many volunteers, Raider had a personal experience with Alzheimer's disease and saw the need for a program like Best Friends.

Another volunteer, Jerry Buckman, has been volunteering for several years. He became involved with the program because his son had volunteered while in college.

The required training for Best Friends taught Buckman how best to befriend a person with dementia.

"Don't talk baby talk or talk childish. You have to talk person to person," said Buckman. His experience at Best Friends brought him from being puzzled by the disease to a better understanding and a change in attitude.

"The conversation is two-way," which he helps by encouraging his friend to talk. The conversations are authentic. "Sometimes you wonder why someone is here," said Buckman.

"They have a common experience" with the male participants, Sue Paulson said of the men who volunteer. Paulson, a longtime volunteer, experienced Alzheimer's disease in her family and thought it was important to "not leave people sitting alone in a room."

She knows firsthand the importance of treating someone with a memory impairment with "dignity and friendship."

The volunteers in the program not only enjoy the time with participants, but also develop a friendship among the volunteers.

This is an experience Paulson thinks many would enjoy, including male volunteers.

"I wish we had more," she said. Paulson said to her friend while holding his hand, "We're friends for life, right?" He agreed. "Oh, yes."