Conventional wisdom used to be that caregivers could do little to intellectually and emotionally reach some people with Alzheimer's disease, who can get anxious, frustrated and angry.
Then, three decades ago, the Best Friends Day Center in Lexington began pioneering new approaches that have been copied in more than 30 countries around the world. Along the way, the center's caregivers have challenged gender-role stereotypes, too.
"Care-giving has usually been looked on as a woman's role," said Best Friends director Sherri Harkless. "I don't think men have necessarily felt that they were needed or wanted."
But they are at Best Friends, which has found that male volunteers can be especially successful at forming breakthrough relationships with participants — mainly men, but also some women.
"Our men volunteers are invaluable," Harkless said. "They are very compassionate, and they bring a lot of 'men skills' with them that can be key."
The Best Friends approach was started in 1984 by Virginia Bell, then a graduate student at what is now the Sanders-Brown Center for Aging at the University of Kentucky. After 20 years at Second Presbyterian Church, the center moved in 2013 to larger quarters at Bridgepointe at Ashgrove Woods, an assisted living facility in Jessamine County.
Bell has co-authored several books about Alzheimer's therapy, and remains the driving force behind Best Friends at the energetic age of 92. She said she found that people with dementia respond well to a volunteer who learns the person's life story, listens and uses respect, patience, empathy and humor to develop a friendship.
Connecting with memories and experiences locked deep in the brain can help a person with dementia become calmer and happier. That is one reason old popular music is often used as therapy.
"Under the dementia, there's a real person," Bell said. "People have had amazing lives, and if you know their story you can relate to them. A person may not know what day it is, but they can intuitively sense if you care."
Caring is the main job of Best Friends' volunteers, who spend at least two hours a week with one of the center's 32 participants, 12 of whom are men. Volunteers range in age from high school students to people in their 80s and 90s.
Only 18 of the current 88 volunteers are men, and Best Friends would like to have more. Bell said men are especially helpful with male participants, who sometimes have no interest in the center's arts and crafts activities but enjoy talking about sports, their careers or their military service.
"We're always looking for men volunteers," Bell said. "They're harder to find. But we have found some special ones."
Tom Meyer, 72, started volunteering four years ago after moving to Lexington from Virginia. He spent his career in the Army and as a military contractor, and he thinks his experiences help him relate to participants who are veterans.
Volunteer Helmut Graetz, 88, a retired IBM engineer, also can relate to some participants' wartime experiences — even though he was fighting on the other side.
Graetz was 16 when he became a paratrooper in the German Army. He fought in Italy, was captured in 1944 and spent time in a British POW camp in Egypt. He then married Goodie, his wife of 62 years, in Germany and they eventually made their way to Canada and the United States. IBM brought them to Lexington.
After years as a volunteer riding instructor for Pony Clubs, Graetz got bored in retirement. His wife has volunteered at Best Friends for 22 years, so she suggested he try it. That was more than a decade ago. Now their son, Michael, 57, also volunteers.
"It's wonderful to try to communicate with someone and try to make them feel better," Graetz said. "I fought against the Americans and British, but I come over here and see that everyone is the same."
Bill Tatman, a UK staff retiree, started volunteering two years ago after the death of his wife, who had been a Best Friends participant.
"I felt guilty the first day I brought her here, but I didn't realize what a good place this was," he said. "Now, being a volunteer is the best day of my week."