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Program trains UCA students while improving the lives of seniors with dementia

Two older gentlemen, best friends for years, use their feet to pass a volleyball back and forth, talking, joking and laughing as therapists-in- training encourage them. Nearby, a lady works with another student to walk her fingers up a wall, exercising her arm and shoulder.

Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” plays in the background, barely audible over the chatter and laughter.

Is this a party or a therapy session? It’s hard to tell. It turns out it’s a bit of both.

A growing problem

As the baby boomer generation grows older, the number of Arkansans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is increasing. The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) Interprofessional Therapeutic Activity Program (I-TAP) is working to help these Arkansans and their caregivers through wellness education, physical activity, cognitive engagement and socialization.

Gratitude abounds

“I get to meet so many people coming here,” said attendee Henry Cameron, 74, of Maumelle. “Several of them are going through the same thing I am, which makes me feel less alone.”

The caregivers are equally grateful.

“You’ll never imagine what a blessing this program has been,” said DeLaine Gartner of Conway, whose husband, Joe, attends. “He asks me all week long when we’ll get to come back again. He loves the exercises and playing the games, and it gives me several hours to get other things done.”

Strength in numbers

The caregivers are offered an evening support group every other week. They share supper, learn about research advancements in dementia, gain tips on caring for their loved ones and support each other. Students care for their loved ones during the support group meeting.

The UCA Student Led Therapeutic Program (S-TAP), launched in the fall of 2021, includes students and faculty in health professions. The 12-week program is held in the fall and spring semesters for 24 patients and their caregivers. A $115,000 behavioral health grant from Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, along with a $51,000 grant from last year, helps make the sessions possible. The participants, all in the mild to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, live at home with their families.

Benefits everyone

“What makes our program unique is our students work with the patients and their caregivers,” said Kerry Jordan, Ph.D., R.N., CNS, CNL, an associate professor for the UCA School of Nursing.

The three-and-a-half-hour Friday morning sessions are held in the Interprofessional Teaching Center, a facility also partially funded with grants from the Blue & You Foundation.

Demand increases

“I had to recruit people to attend the first session, but people quickly learned about the program through word-of-mouth. The program has had a waiting list ever since,” Jordan said.

The students providing I-TAP activities are all from UCA’s College of Health and Behavioral Sciences. The students from physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science and psychology are providing care this semester. Next semester, nursing and speech therapy students will be providing the care.

The ties that bind

“I’ve been part of this program for two years now,” said Jessi Bennett, a graduate assistant. “I’ve built relationships with the attendees, their caregivers, other students and the instructors.”

During the weekly therapy sessions, one group plays games like bean bag toss while receiving cognitive therapy, while the other practices strength-training exercises in physical therapy. Then they swap. The attendees are excited to be there and visit with the students during their activities.

A treasure for the community

The program is a valuable resource for the community, as the number of Arkansans diagnosed with dementia – currently at more than 58,000 – is expected to grow. With the help of the Blue & You Foundation grant, UCA is making a difference in the lives of those affected by dementia and their caregivers.


Caring for caregivers

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is challenging. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, stressed and alone.

“I was searching for help with my physical, emotional and mental health,” said Sally Roden, whose loved one took part in the UCA I-TAP program. “I was at the end of my rope and didn’t know where to turn.”

As a result, caregivers also need to focus on their own health, but finding the right resources is difficult.

Alzheimer’s Association, Arkansas Chapter

“Caregivers overwhelmingly report experiencing high levels of stress,” said Kirsten Dickins, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Arkansas Chapter. “Alzheimer’s and dementia present unique challenges and struggles. We urge anyone in that situation to seek support and resources.”

Alzheimer’s Arkansas

“We offer an array of caregiver resources from educational workshops to respite activities and financial assistance,” said Stephenie A. Cooke, executive director of Alzheimer’s Arkansas, which has served unpaid family caregivers for 40 years. “We want all caregivers to know they are not alone in their journey.”

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