Category: Miscellaneous

Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues: The importance of sharing what we learn

I am facing something a lot of people face: caring for a loved one with memory loss, often the result of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of cognitive impairment.

While I sometimes feel as if I am falling apart, I know I am not facing this situation alone. Not only do I have other family members to help, but I also have three colleagues who are either going through or have gone through similar challenges. In addition, we work for an organization that offers a range of community-based services geared to those who are 60 and older.

Am I taking this in stride? Absolutely not.

My 93-year-old aunt, who is my godmother and like my second mom, is in a nursing home with this very emotional disease. My mother, who is her 80-year-old sister, has difficulty understanding how my aunt can be suffering when she doesn’t look physically ill. Cognitive issues truly affect the entire family.

It wasn’t until my aunt turned 90 that we started to notice little things. But, like so many others, we chalked it up to age. My colleague, Susan Long, admits it was only when she insisted her mom see a neurologist that she realized the disease was worse than she had thought.

“My biggest struggle is the guilt that I didn’t insist she go earlier,” she told me.
At some point, it is difficult to explain away the memory loss.

For Susan Johns, who also works for Diakon Community Services, that situation occurred when her 90-year-old father didn’t recognize her. “That was my most devastating experience,” she remembers. “For 70 years, I was his little girl. All of a sudden, he had no idea who I was.”

Despite the difficulties we’ve experienced, we all believe we have learned things that we want to share for the benefit of families in similar situations. One thing that was particularly striking for me was how, despite knowledge that my aunt was changing, I wanted everything to remain normal.

While she still lived at home, we often made her go to birthday parties and other family gatherings with the hope she would have a good time. What we didn’t understand at the time was that these events made her more anxious. Looking back, I wish we had handled things differently.

It was only recently that we found a note she had written to herself seven years earlier after my daughter-in-law’s bridal shower. In it, she revealed that she did not know how to write her name or make the food she normally takes to events. “Something is wrong,” she wrote, offering a clear reminder for us that it is never too early to voice your concerns.

Although it was a difficult decision to move my aunt into a nursing home, we knew it was best for her as her disease progressed. However, many people may never reach that point.

My colleague Jenny Wagner and her sister shared the role of caregiver for their mother. Even though her dementia worsened during the last five years of her life, their mother lived independently with their support. Jenny’s sister checked on her throughout the day and Jenny spent weekends with her.

“It was hard in the sense that it was a long, slow goodbye,” she recalls. “You could see it happening and you were living with it. My mom always maintained a great sense of humor, making it easier for my sister and me to maintain our attitude about the whole thing.”

Despite the daily challenges of caring for our loved ones, we all have found or continue to find value in the time we’ve been given together—from deeper relationships with parents and treasured moments with a favorite relative to teaching our children respect for their elders.

—Debbie Herb, coordinator of center services for Diakon Community Services in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, with additional thoughts from Susan Long, program coordinator, Diakon Living & Learning; Susan Johns, APPRISE program coordinator; and Jennifer Wagner, community wellness coordinator.

In connection with the thoughts shared in this blog post, Diakon Community Services—along with Independent Living and the county Office of Senior Services—will host “Alzheimer’s and Dementia: A panel of help, hope and understanding,” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Pottsville Senior Community Center. The educational session is designed for individuals and families caring for a loved one with a cognitive impairment. People may register by calling (570) 624-3016.

Click here for additional information, including a list of panelists.

A pastor’s perspective on orphan care and the church

I am one of the pastors of Grace Baptist Church in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have eight children—three born to us and five who are either adopted or in the process of being adopted. They span from age 7 to 20. 

Our life is crazy, but good, so good! My wife is awesome and my children are a joy! 

As individual believers, but also as the church, we have a responsibility and opportunity to take care of the fatherless. God tells us in the Old Testament (Psalm 68) that He has a special place in His heart for those who need parents, that He is the Father to the fatherless.  

And in the New Testament book of James, we read that is what “true religion is”: To care for those who cannot care for themselves, orphans.  So I ask, “What is your church doing?” and “What are you doing?” 

Let me also suggest a few potential action steps. 

1. Pray – Pray for your church and its leaders. Pray that they have wisdom in how to care for “orphans.” Pray for those you know who are either displaced children or those who minister to them through foster care and adoption. Pray that God may give you direction in how you can be involved.

2. Ask – Ask what you can do in the church to care for those who are in your sphere of influence.  Ask your church leaders if there is something more you could be doing as a church. Come to them willing to be a part of the solution. An easy thing to do is to participate in National Orphan Sunday. It is usually on Veterans Day weekend and, this year, falls on Nov. 19. (You can certainly focus on the subject another day; last year we had a pair of shoes up front on the platform for every million orphans in the world.)

There are a lot of resources available to you at https://cafo.org/orphansunday if you are interested. Also, I am sure that our friends at Diakon Adoption & Foster Care can assist you.

In the past at our church, we have had people give testimonies and also had focused times of prayer in our services. This year, we will be making some prayer cards for our people to pray for waiting kids, from adoptpakids.org. It will be in the bulletin, so that people can pray for them throughout the next year. 

We also have had different representatives from adoption organizations set up a table to answer questions and provide information

There is much that can be done! Currently, we as a church are providing a diaper subscription to a family who just took in two children in diapers. Again, ask—ask what you and your church can do.

3. Get Involved – Let me encourage you by noting that you don’t have to be perfect to get involved. God can use you right where you are. Not all are called to adopt, but we can all care and become involved at some level. I once heard a statistic that if each church would adopt one child in the U.S., that step would take care of all of the waiting children in the country. There are about 400,000 children in foster care or needing a permanent family—and about 400,000 churches. Obviously, the solution is not as simple as that, but you get the point. 

We could all become involved and do a little more to make a big difference. What are you willing to do?

—Calvin Cutting


A careful plan can help you to ‘right-size’ your living space

In my work as a certified relocation and transition specialist, I come in contact with many people who have lived in the same home for 20 or 30 years or even longer and who have found their accumulation of things to be overwhelming.

In fact, because of all their “stuff,” they often can’t face the idea of moving into smaller accommodations to begin retirement, as a result of health changes or to reduce home costs.

Moreover, the issue of dealing with too much stuff can affect anyone, regardless of age, even though I typically work with older adults transitioning to a smaller home or a senior living community.

Armed with a few strategic tips and guidelines, however, most people can tackle even the most difficult home-organization project with confidence.

The key is about “right-sizing” your living space.

A good place to start is by categorizing possessions into groups: items you need, love and want. A good space will contain only what we need and love and a little bit of what we want.

A great space will have only what we need and love.

A common stumbling block clients describe to me is hesitance to get rid of their children’s old belongings or items they have stored for friends and family.

I tell them not to let this hold them back from taking the first step toward getting organized. Contact children and friends to find out if they want their items back or no longer have use for them. If not, there are many ways to dispose of them, including donation to a nonprofit or selling them online.

The old adage that one person’s “trash” is another’s treasure is true!

Of course, letting go of items collected over the years is tough. Sometimes, though, it can help to take a last look at an item and share your memories about it with a family member or friend—and then pack it away for good.

Depending on your ultimate goal for reorganizing, it’s important to ask yourself if you really do need an item. As just one example, instead of keeping a dinner service for 12, reduce it to four.

I often provide these tips in seminars at senior living communities or work directly with individuals and families contemplating a move.

But whether you plan to right-size your living space with the help of family members or with a professional, the best way to approach what can often be an emotional situation is with the benefit of a good plan.

—Carolyn Doerr owns Caring Transitions of Mechanicsburg

Making benefits even more appealing

It was more than four decades ago, but I can still vividly recall the setting.

I was sitting in an office of Human Resources, at that time called “Personnel,” on the second floor of Tressler-Lutheran Service Associates’ Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, office building, converted from the old Lutheran Home on the West Shore.

Six months had passed since my initial employment with Tressler and my discussion with one of the two staff members then in Personnel centered on my selection of benefits, which were now available to me.

Did I want to sign up for a pension contribution?

“Nope,” I asserted, testament to my naiveté at that age. I later attributed that poor decision to the small salary I was receiving; after all, it was 1978 and the salary at my former position, as a newspaper reporter and editor, had been even smaller.

Fortunately, I eventually came to my senses and signed up for Tressler’s 403(b) plan.

While most employees now know better than to wait for benefits, especially as employers focus on comprehensive orientation programs, many organizations still impose a “probationary period” before employees can receive benefits such as health-care coverage.

Diakon has been one those employers, but no longer.

Beginning Aug. 1, Diakon joins the list of forward-focused organizations offering “Day 1 health-care benefits.” That means new employees—both full- and part-time—can immediately sign up for health-care coverage, including medical, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage.

Other benefits, including tuition assistance, retirement plan, and disability insurance, still require waiting for the probationary period to end, but nearly all employees are most concerned about health-care insurance, so the change is a very welcomed one.

Making Day 1 employment today much better—and smarter—than mine 41 years ago.

 By William Swanger, MA, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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The power of community

I recently heard someone speak about the importance of community. I was intrigued by an unusual experience he cited, called the Roseto effect.

According to UnimedLiving.com, “In 1964 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined a population of recent Italian immigrants in Roseto, a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. The study was instigated because the town doctor was completely baffled by the Rosetans’ near immunity to heart disease. He reported his observations” and an extensive study was conducted, comparing health statistics in the community to those of neighboring towns.

In fact, from 1954 to 1961, Roseto had nearly no heart attacks within the population of men 55 to 64, normally a high-risk group, and men older than 65 had a death rate of 1%, while nationally the average was 2%, despite other behaviors (such as smoking) considered unhealthy and sometimes-hazardous working conditions.

The local physician attributed the lower heart-disease rate to lower stress. Researchers suggested “the quality of family relationships and the social milieu may be pertinent to the occurrence of or protection against death from myocardial infarction.” (The Huffington Post also writes about it here in more detail.)

Interestingly, as social structures changed and the community grew less tight-knit, heart-disease rates rose to be comparable to the rest of the country.

There are certainly no guarantees that living in a close-knit community will protect you against heart disease but, at least for me, the Roseto effect makes sense.

When we live in healthy communities, assisting one another and enjoying life together, it just makes sense that stress levels are lower. With stress reportedly one factor in heart disease, it seems logical to associate life in close community with others to taking at least one step closer to physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Creating that type of community lies at the heart of what senior living services providers such as Diakon do.

The very design of our senior living communities, the amenities we offer and the events we craft are all designed to engender a sense of community not only among our residents but also between residents and staff members and residents and the general community.

Again, no one can claim creating such community will ensure lowered heart concerns or even decreased stress levels, but it certainly cannot hurt. And when you speak with our residents, many mention the newfound sense of community they have found with us.

By Melissa Kindall
Manager, Social Media and Digital Communications Manager
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Social media: Being Sir Galahad and not Daenerys Targaryen

The emails come in daily: How to use social media to promote your organization or business.

Of course, the interesting thing is that the companies selling their social media-focused services are using email (direct-to-you communication) to promote their products.

To be fair, they are probably promoting them as well via social media but their best line of marketing, at least for me, is to direct their pitch to my email inbox.

No question, though. Social media is a wonderful thing. (The grammarian in me wants to write “social media are wonderful things” … but that phrasing just sounds strange.)

Social media have aided democratization in various parts of the world and given voice literally to everyone willing or motivated to use it.

Diakon’s various social-media channels—we have many, many Facebook pages, for example, because the best social media are local—allow us to reach people directly and in ways that most interest them.

And there’s quite the variety: people discussing the care they received at a Diakon senior living community … others inquiring of Diakon Youth Services’ wilderness greenhouse about the availability of a particular native plant … and still others wishing the best for a youth in need of foster care or adoption.

Sometimes, the discussions are heart-warming.

I have my own Facebook account, of course. I like to post witty observations and occasionally, as over the Memorial Day weekend, an update on activities: my son and I worked three longs days doing major outside projects at his and my house.

About two years ago, though, I eschewed commenting on or posting anything political. I’ve broken that rule once or twice but overall stuck with it.

This topic is one that has been debated by countless others so I most likely am not adding anything new but the tone of some political posts—from both “sides”—makes me occasionally question the long-term impact of social media.

Now I’m no Chicken Little “the-sky-is-falling” person and recognize that most people can differentiate a personal rant from true news.

What occasionally gives me pause, though, is that some people reportedly get most of their news or commentary on politics and other important topics via social media or engage in debates that quickly deteriorate into anger. And that often serves no useful purpose.

A few years back I did get into a heated political discussion on Facebook with another Diakon staff member. Fortunately, we were smart enough to stop, pull back and recognize that our friendship is more important than engaging in such a debate in this particular forum.

And that was one more plank in my decision to pull back from such discussions.

At the same time, I continue to recognize the engagement value of social media, the wonderful connections organizations make with their publics via social media, the reconnections we personally can develop with people we haven’t seen in years and, yes, even the ability of social media to inform.
I just believe we need to be as smart—and as civil—as possible in how we use it.

By William Swanger, MA, APR
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Mapping out a career path one step at a time

My friends were receiving college acceptance letters and comparing SAT scores, but I was barely keeping my head above water my final months of high school. I had loosely planned on attending college, but at the start of my senior year in high school, my parents suddenly divorced.

My world was turned upside down.

And if I had received any guidance about my future, I truly don’t remember it. My family shifted into survival mode and I had no idea how to sign up for SATs and absolutely no motivation to keep up my grades. College wasn’t even on my radar.

I’m not bitter about it; however, it was not the picture-perfect plan I had envisioned in my younger teen years and watching my friends head off to college that fall stung a bit.

Fast forward a few years to my early 20s: While working multiple jobs, I attended a community college part-time and earned my associate’s degree. Then, at the age of 40, I returned to college to earn my bachelor’s degree. I graduated five years ago with a BA in Communications and I would never have been able to do it without the support of my family, friends and work colleagues.

My next major career goal is to earn my accreditation in public relations, signified by the initials APR. Which brings me to the point of this post: There is no one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach when it comes to a career path.

I think it’s important to understand this as we find ourselves in high school and college graduation season. Young people may be feeling lots of pressure as they transition and we need to encourage they see beyond whatever limitations they face, self-imposed or otherwise.

I joined Diakon nearly 11 years ago as a part-time administrative assistant. I had the opportunity to be mentored in public relations and communications by my supervisor and take advantage of Diakon’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, which is offered to staff members. It helped to offset some of the costs of college I never would have been able to afford, especially while having a family to take care of!

I think it’s important for businesses and organizations to invest in their employees. One of those ways is to offer tuition assistance, as well as opportunities to grow. Not only have I had the opportunity to use TAP funds, but I also am currently enrolled in a program called Leadership Diakon.

Leadership Diakon presents participants with opportunities to meet fellow team members and participate in meaningful educational offerings. It has been so valuable learning about all aspects of the organization from finance to business development and even how to better understand and work alongside people who have different personality traits.

My advice to those just starting out in their careers is to never settle. There is something to be learned in every position and at every level in the workplace. We just have to be willing and open to learning new things. And college or no college, what you have to offer is extremely valuable, so keep growing and exploring!

By Melissa Kindall
Manager, Social Media and Digital Communications Manager
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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The good we do beyond the good we set out to do

Somewhere along the line I came up with the phrase “the good we do beyond the good we set out to do.”

While that almost makes that “secondary good” seem unintentional, it’s not. “Doing good”—that is, having a positive impact on society beyond direct service to people in need—is a special and significant responsibility of nonprofit organizations, particularly in lieu of certain taxes. Doing good beyond what we set out to do through our service programs and senior living communities is something of which we are very proud.

That positive impact is called community benefit.

We began calculating Diakon’s community benefit for the first time six years ago and are now readying our sixth community benefit report, this time for 2018. Typically, Diakon’s community benefit amounts to approximately $20 million.

Community benefit is quite different from annual reporting. We don’t count people served or provide financial summaries of what we spent during the prior year. Rather, we look at such factors as offering free meeting space to community groups, providing mentoring or other support to students in the health care or social services fields, donations of unused medication to help people in need and support groups we offer the public free.

Community benefit also includes the subsidized service we provide, so that we can help many people with limited financial resources.

Part of me dreads this time of year because, based on national guidelines, calculating community benefit can be, well, math-intensive.

In the case of free meeting space, for example, I have to know the cost-per-square-foot-for-maintenance of a Diakon facility, the size of the room in which an outside group held its free meetings and how many hours the group was there during the year!

You get the picture. It’s calculator time.

But another part of me truly enjoys the effort, calculations and all, because doing so underscores the amazing impact we have on society—the good we do beyond the good we set out to do!

You can view our 2018 Community Benefit Report by clicking here.

 By William Swanger, MA, APR
Senior Vice President
Corporate Communications & Public Relations

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Traumatic past turns to strength and guidance

“Who knew from concrete a flower could grow?”

I faced every type of horror imaginable as a child, but I have overcome that trauma and turned it into strength. But I didn’t always recognize that ability.

From the time I was 12 until I was 18 years old, I was in and out of foster homes, placements, residential programs and shelters. Separated from my siblings and my home, I was constantly looking for a place to plant my feet.

One of the first stops was a month-long wilderness challenge-based experience for troubled adolescents with Diakon Youth Services.

Transported to South Carolina with several counselors, we were expected to hike the whole way back to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I was homesick, dealing with anger and not emotionally ready for the experience, so on day 16, I decided I was done. I set my backpack down and refused to move. As a ward of the state, I felt I had nothing to lose. Eventually, they would call my case worker and send me back on a plane.

Years later, with time and a different perspective, I was able to see the value of that experience. But at the time, all I understood was that if I allowed myself to feel, bad things would happen.

For the next six years, I bounced from placement to placement. Just before my 18th birthday, I met the first foster parents who, despite my resistance, would not give up on me and encouraged me to do the right thing. They became a huge part of my life. With their encouragement, I spent the next few years figuring out who I was and what I wanted, enjoying life and making my own choices.

After two years living in Arizona, I returned to the area and threw myself into work as a server and cook. When I was 26 years old, I struck a conversation with a couple about my career goals that would set me on my current path. The woman invited me to visit her at the Diakon Wilderness Center, where she worked. When I arrived on the mountainous campus, it immediately took me back to my first wilderness experience. This time, however, I was ready.

The program director encouraged me to stay the weekend, shadow the counselors, work with the kids and see if the work would interest me. Of course, it did! What better place than here to show these youths that there are people who care. Being able to make a positive experience for other kids has made me realize why I went through all the trauma I did as a child.

If I hadn’t experienced it, how would I connect with these kids and help them get past their trauma?

I have been with Diakon Youth Services a little more than four years, and I still feel strongly that my work here as a counselor has purpose. Working with youths is not always easy, but when you experience those moments when a kid truly opens up, it is all worth it. We get to show them there are people who care, who want them to succeed and who see the better part of them.

That has been especially true for me here at Diakon, where I have been supported and encouraged by people at all levels of the organization. Because of them and Diakon’s tuition assistance program, I recently enrolled in college and am pursuing a degree in psychology. They helped me realize that my passion and life experience, combined with a college education, will improve my work with the youths as well.

For most of my life, I felt I wasn’t doing anything for myself. I questioned the reason for the pain and trauma I had experienced and wondered what my purpose in life was. Now, I understand that I am able to give back by helping people, using what hurt me to inspire others. I want them to understand that while our pain does shape us, it is up to each of us to choose what that shape becomes.

Christina created this artwork to visualize what it is like to live with depression and anxiety.

By Christina Bowers
Counselor, Diakon Youth Services

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Patient turned faithful volunteer

I volunteer two days a week at Frey Village, but it’s just not long enough.

After I spent several weeks recuperating from back surgery in the village’s health care and rehabilitation center, I knew I wanted to return. I sympathized with the patients and residents who didn’t have many visitors and jumped at the chance to volunteer when asked. My job is to help with activities, deliver mail and make visitations.

The part I like best is visiting with people. I ask how they are doing, talk about their hobbies, anything to break up their day a bit. I really enjoy the connections I have made and have found I have a lot in common with many of them. We get to talking, and it makes the time fly for both of us!

I know from personal experience that when you lie in bed all day with nothing to do, it makes for a long day. While I was recovering from my back surgery, I initially had difficulty walking. With the help of physical therapy, I improved to where I could use a walker. That was a game-changer and I soon was getting get out of bed and walking in my walker all over the building!

It was during those walks that I met some of the people I visit today now that I am fully recovered. One woman, for example, knows my sister-in-law. She would talk with her whenever she visited the grocery store where she worked. I know another man’s whole family—I went to school with one of them and lived down the street from the other. In fact, some of residents were surprised to see me come in—because they knew me as a patient!

I empathize with many of them who are struggling with physical challenges, and I sympathize with those who feel forgotten by family and friends. That is why at the end of my six- or seven-hour shift, I often feel as if that wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to do.

I’d go every day, if I could. In fact, I wish I had started volunteering sooner.

I’m retired so I have the time to give and the desire to help. But it is the big smiles that greet me every visit that motivate me to do more. They all ask me to return, but they don’t need to worry.

I’ll be back.

Frey Village Volunteer Gary Shomper is a retiree who lives in Highspire, Pennsylvania.

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