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Older couples at FAU: through thick and thin

In sickness and in health. Words avowed in a traditional wedding ceremony are the foundation for a unique group that meets weekly at the Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center at Florida Atlantic University.

Partners in Palm Beach and Broward county dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and disorders that impair cognitive functioning have been benefiting from the Couples Club, a social program developed at the memory center in 2007.

What makes this group unique is that the focus isn’t on education, therapy or cognitive intervention, it is on friendship.

“Traditionally, couples are offered counseling, caregivers are provided support and individuals with diagnoses are enrolled in programs that keep them active and engaged,” said licensed clinical psychologist Denise Sparks, director of the Green Memory and Wellness Center on FAU’s Boca Raton campus.

At the urging of one couple, Sparks began the Couples Club as a pilot program through a philanthropic gift. When the money ran out, the members decided to continue funding the program at their own expense. Twenty dollars a week pays for a yoga instructor, dance instructor, music therapist, excursions, and a student staff member who helps facilitate the group and coordinate activities.

With exceptions in the United Kingdom and Canada, groups formed on the basis of cognitive difficulties that include both partners and focus on social interaction are relatively uncommon. Here in the U.S. these types of groups are primarily extensions of caregiver support programs. For example, caregivers in a support group at Northwestern University Medical School Alzheimer’s clinic began to organize outings with their partners when members decided they wanted more quality time together.

Peter V. Rabins, co-author of an Alzheimer’s care giving guide: “The 36-Hour Day,” and professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University explains why these programs aren’t more common.

“We’ve given wide attention to the caregivers and ignored the psychological and relational aspects of the lives of people with the disease,” Rabins said. “But I believe this is changing and people are now beginning to focus on this under-addressed issue.”

Another important and unique aspect of the Couples Club is that it takes the emphasis off disease or diagnosis. Members simply come together to connect and have fun. Since they function as a unit, partners provide compensation for mild to moderate language, memory and reasoning issues. Additionally, their common ground provides understanding, sensitivity and a level of patience that doesn’t always exist when relating with couples unfamiliar with the difficulties associated with cognitive deficits.

“The Couples Club provides a warm and non-judgmental environment in which individuals experiencing cognitive changes and their partners can develop positive connections with others,” Sparks said. “This is especially important because Alzheimer’s disease, and other disorders that impair cognition, make them very vulnerable to social isolation.”

“There is great acceptance, and we never focus on disability,” Martha Kasner told a prospective couple who joined the group one afternoon to learn about the program. “Outside of our regular meetings, we have attended lectures, entertained each other and met for dinner.”

Each week, members begin a 90-minute meeting by sharing what took place during the intervening days. Then they participate in an activity.

In a recent session, one couple talked about houseguests, another discussed two foreign films they had seen, and another regaled the group with a series of minor mishaps on a last minute trip to see their grandchildren. Then they enjoyed a political discussion with former CNN White House correspondent Jacobo Goldstein, who volunteers his time once a month to engage the couples in conversation about politics past and present.

“This guy is great, smart, a good guy,” said Don Friedman in reference to Goldstein. “I also like the Australian.”

“Don is referring to the lady that does the yoga,” his wife Beth added. “We both think she is great, and this program is wonderful. Two and a-half years ago, when Don had a stroke, he couldn’t walk or talk. He has made a tremendous recovery. But after his therapy, I continued to look for programs and was told nothing existed.”

Friedman eventually found the Couples Club when her husband’s neurologist recommended she call the FAU Memory and Wellness Center.

“The marital strength these couples display is inspiring,” said Brittney Lemons a FAU junior studying psychology who helps facilitate the Couples Club. “It has been wonderful to see the camaraderie and support grow and continue to develop among them. Any couple that joins this group benefits from a sense of belonging and the feeling of being cared for.”

“I decided to join this group for Eileen who is basically shy,” said Paul Mizels. “It has been a wonderful experience for both of us. We have meet really great people we otherwise wouldn’t have met.”

Even though the Couples Club does not focus on therapy, the program’s Web page highlights its therapeutic benefits, stating it can “bolster a sense of wholeness for the members suffering from cognitive deficits, while providing their caregivers an opportunity to recognize that they are not alone in their experiences,” and “contribute to a healthy sense of self for both individuals while strengthening their identification as a couple.”

Those interested in the Couples Club can learn more by calling the Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center at FAU, 561-297-0502.




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