Friends’ Day Out: A Peer Support and Respite Innovation in Elko

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**This post was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and may discuss in-person events that are not currently taking place. For more information on Dementia Friendly Nevada’s response to COVID-19, please read our update here.**

For two years, Cheryl Poll prayed that she’d find something to replace her previous work as a facilitator of a program that served families in crisis. For years, she taught the Family Wellness program, “Survival Skills for Healthy Families,” a series of six two-hour sessions that offered practical tools for healthy family interactions.

She loved it.

Yet when the local juvenile center lost funding for the program, Poll was devastated: “I just have a heart for helping families.”

Then one Friday, she got a phone call from a close friend with some exciting news. There was a new peer support program in town aimed at older adults living with dementia, and they needed a facilitator. The program was called Friends’ Day Out.

“She knew I was looking for something else to continue to offer my experience in a positive way in the community,” recalls Poll. “I thought, oh my gosh, this is an answer to a prayer.”

Following a Dementia Community Assessment, Dementia Friendly Elko, one of Nevada’s six dementia-friendly community action groups, identified two big gaps: a support group for people living with dementia, and community-based respite support for family care partners. Group members decided to address both gaps with one new program, Friends Day Out, which features an evidence-based mutual peer support program called Java Music Club. Working in partnership with the Terrace and Ruby View, who provides the location, and Nevada Rural RSVP, who provides the volunteers, Dementia Friendly Elko developed the weekly Friends’ Day Out to include a shared meal, peer support and socialization for people living with dementia, and a much-needed 3 to 4 hour respite break for family care partners.

When Poll learned of this new volunteer opportunity, she texted, emailed and phoned Steven Nichols who for the past month had made the 10-hour round trip from Carson City to facilitate Friends’ Day Out every Friday in Elko. As the Innovations Project Respite Program Director for the Nevada Rural Counties RSVP Program, which provides aging services to rural areas, Nichols had helped replicate and launch the program in Carson City and was now spreading it to rural areas throughout the state.

With no previous aging experience, but plenty of people skills and enthusiasm, Nichols had contacted the creator of the Java Music Club to learn everything possible about the program, which expertly engages older adults with its blend of music, stories and personal reminiscences. With each session focusing on a unique theme, Nichols recalls the first time he introduced a topic.

“I didn’t tell anyone what the day’s theme was,” he says. “I just pulled it out of the envelope. People were so excited. It was like the Academy Awards.”

Now Nichols and Poll both have great experience hosting Friends’ Day Out and have found the joy of the Java Music Club extends beyond their weekly program.

Originally offered for people living with dementia, “The caregivers have so much fun, they want to stay, too” laughs Poll.

Each week a different theme is presented — “Animals,” “Acceptance,” “Changes,” “Grandparents,” “Making Amends” — with an accompanying photo and quotes. Stories are shared, followed by songs that match the theme. Most people sing along, but the program also includes a number of easily-played percussion instruments ranging from egg shakers to bells and chimes.

A key element is the talking stick, which is used during discussions to ensure only one person speaks at a time. With her long history in family communication, Poll says that those who think they’re communicating often aren’t, or are not well heard.

“It’s never too late to teach those communication skills,” she says. From past experience when families learned these tools “I saw kids and parents just light up.” Elders are much the same.

“Once they get this talking stick in their hand, they feel empowered because they have the full attention of everyone,” says Nichols.

“It gives them an ability to express themselves without having someone tell them ‘Oh you shouldn’t say that,’” echoes Poll. “It’s kind of magical when you see it happen.”

Since Poll took over the Friends’ Day Out in Elko, there have been a handful of dependable regulars, including a woman who survived a brain aneurysm who attends with her husband.

“She looks forward to the class on Friday, because it’s helped her have a mind shift and look on the positive side,” says Poll. “She’s now one of the most positive and happy people in the group. And she loves to play the chimes!”

And there are even more benefits.

“What I’ve seen in Java Music is that people who haven’t communicated much are coming out of their shell,” adds Poll. “They’re more willing to communicate from their heart.”

She recounts a story shared by one elder man, a care partner for his wife, who never liked the dog his son left at the house when he went off to college. Yet eventually the dog became one of his best friends.

“This whole program can really touch people and help them heal,” says Poll.

Meanwhile, both Poll and Nichols are aware of the benefits Java Music Club offers to them personally.

“It’s changed my life, this program,” says Nichols, “It’s made me want to serve.”

“When you’re helping others, you heal and help yourself,” says Poll.