Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Churches offer care to an aging population

A number of local congregations minister to the increasing aging population through a program called The Gathering. This program for persons with early- to mid-stage memory loss pairs program participants (who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) with volunteers.

Nine Twin Cities congregations currently are sites for the program under the guidance of Lynblomsten Services Inc., St. Paul. About 200 volunteers work at the nine sites. Lutheran congregations are well-represented, but other denominations are also part of the nationally-recognized program.

Lutheran congregations hosting the program include Augustana, West St. Paul; Salem, West St. Paul; Oak Knoll, Minnetonka; Calvary, Golden Valley; and Bethlehem, Minneapolis. Centennial United Methodist in Roseville hosts the program in collaboration with St. Timothy Lutheran, St. Paul.

The Gathering emphasizes social and cognitive stimulation for those living with early- to mid-stage memory loss through one-to-one connections. Photos provided by Lyngblomsten

Klaver is certain that “congregations can be a solution to the coming tsunami of memory loss that comes with an aging population.”

Other Lutheran congregations collaborating in the program include: Amazing Grace, Inver Grove Heights; Redeemer, White Bear Lake; St. Barnabas, Plymouth; St. John’s, Minneapolis; Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer, Minneapolis; and St. Philip the Deacon, Plymouth. Smaller congregations work together in a consortium. Twice-monthly gatherings are the norm; attendance is usually about eight participants plus volunteers.

Memory loss is not simply a disease

When there is an opening available, the caregiver and loved one experiencing memory loss meet with The Gathering staff for an assessment and enrollment. Space can be reserved for him/her for as long as involvement is appropriate.

Sessions last from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the program date. Caregivers know that the volunteers have been specially trained to understand the distinctive needs of people with memory loss and that they can have a five-hour respite for errands or just relaxing, says registered nurse Carolyn Klaver, Lyngblomsten coordinator for The Gathering. Volunteers are sensitive to the fact that memory loss affects different areas of the brain in different people.

Klaver is certain that “congregations can be a solution to the coming tsunami of memory loss that comes with an aging population.” The respite offered to primary caregivers is also important since statistics show caregivers’ lives average four to eight years less than the general population. That’s due, Klaver says, to the stress of being responsible for the person with memory loss, often 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since the program pairs volunteers with participants on a one-on-one basis, it is highly reliant on a large number of volunteers. For example, on a recent day at the Bethlehem Lutheran site in south Minneapolis, nine program participants were served by 34 volunteers.

What a day looks like

One day’s program at Bethlehem included coffee/chat time, a discussion of the Mississippi River, stretch exercises, word search, piano music, river literature discussion, lunch, a neighborhood walk, a presentation on Mississippi River birds, music related to the river, a discussion of port cities, and a Show Boat movie.

Many people participate in The Gathering events.

For Pat, whose career was in graphic design, The Gathering means being treated with respect, getting to know other people and, not least, an excellent lunch served at Bethlehem. While many people with memory loss like structure and dislike change, Pat recently moved from a single family home to a condo — and enjoys her new living arrangement and interaction with more people.

Morris, who served as a missionary in Japan for 50 years, finds The Gathering “uplifting.” He says people there have a good sense of humor, and he gets to tell some jokes. Morris enjoys providing a meditation at a seniors day care facility but finds he can’t do it impromptu anymore, and now his wife writes out his thoughts for the meditations. Recently he even shared John 3:16 in Japanese.

To Frances Glass Newman, whose husband Larry has been participating in The Gathering at Bethlehem for two years, it is the perfect program for those with mild- to medium-stage Alzheimer’s disease. She first noticed changes in her husband’s ability to process information at about age 60; he is now 76.

“While people talk about their finances and dreams for retirement, we need to talk about diseases we may encounter through the years and how to be prepared for that,” Frances observed. She values the one-on-one relationship Larry gets as well as the respite she gets as a caregiver. She also appreciates the emotional support she receives, therapeutic conversations, and the atmosphere at The Gathering, which she said is like “extended family.”

Frances sees a need for an evening program for households like hers. Because she is legally blind, she and her husband lack mobility and would enjoy evening activities that would get them out of their Minneapolis Uptown-area apartment. Frances has found it difficult to look for a place for her husband as his Alzheimer’s progresses or in case something would happen to her as his caregiver. She likens life to “receiving the pieces of a puzzle and figuring out how all the pieces fit together.”

Frances would like to see more younger volunteers become involved with The Gathering. Perhaps there could be a short commitment (such as three months) for younger, busy people.

A book of comments by program participants, If We Forget … Wisdom and Reflections from Those Living with Memory Loss, was developed by Lyngblomsten and Oak Knoll Lutheran Church, Minnetonka. It is available through Amazon or CreateSpace for $10 or may be picked up at the church at the same price; mail orders to the church at 600 Hopkins Crossroad, should add $3 for shipping and handling.

The twice a month program at Bethlehem (soon to become weekly) charges $45 per session with a sliding scale recognizing household income.

The Gathering will soon roll out across the country under the name First Circle Friends.

In addition to the fees paid by participants, financial supporters include Lynblomsten Foundation, Brookdale Foundation, Andersen Foundation, and many individuals. More information is available at the website: (Click on “Services,” then “Supportive Services.”) More information and a brochure are available by calling Lyngblomsten at 651/414-5291.

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