BANGOR, Maine — When Ronald Newcomb was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago, one of the first questions his daughter asked the doctor was, “Is there a support group he can attend?”
The answer was no, Jane Campbell, 44, of Brewer, said earlier this month. She kept asking and late last year, Campbell finally got the answer she had been hoping for.
Now Newcomb, 71, of Hampden, spends four hours every Monday at Memory Joggers, a program for people suffering from early memory loss, at the First United Methodist Church on Essex Street in Bangor.
“I felt it was very important for him to socialize with other people with memory loss,” she said. “Since he’s been coming here, he’s much more confident with people.”
Memory Joggers is one of just 14 programs in the country designed to help people suffering from early memory loss, director Barbara Fister said earlier this month. The program is the only one of its kind in New England, she said.
Fister also runs My Friend’s Place, an adult day care program at the church.
The first Memory Joggers session was held on Jan. 5 and has been held nearly every Monday since then. A new session on Wednesdays was added on Nov. 12. Participants attend from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. once a week and bring a brown bag lunch.
“Memory Joggers offers a stimulating and supportive atmosphere in which to enjoy physical, social and educational activities aimed at memory enhancement,” the brochures describing the program state.
Each day has a theme and activities are planned around that theme, Fister said. Mental exercises include word jumbles, crosswords, songs and poetry. Games such as horseshoes and beanbag tosses and stretching and flexibility activities exercise the body, she said. The participants also play board games.
The people participating range in age from 58 to 91. A group with six to eight participants works best, but more than that and it becomes a bit too difficult to include everyone in all the activities, Fister said. Another day was added to keep the “class size” small, she said.
Most people who participate are either dropped off or drive themselves to the church, according to Fister. Campbell accompanies her father to assist him if he needs help communicating because the disease is affecting Newcomb’s ability to form words quickly and to speak loudly enough to be heard.
“This gives me an opportunity to be with him, which I love,” Campbell said, “and it gives my mom, who is his primary caregiver, an opportunity to have some time to herself.”
She said that the themes used for each day’s events help the participants concentrate. The theme on the Monday before Veterans Day focused on the holiday. The group spent time making lists of what the holiday meant to them, then shared memories sparked by those lists.
Peggy Beitzell, 79, of Bangor remembered air raid drills, blackout curtains, and keeping sand on the roof in case a fire started during a bombing.
“Of course, we never did get bombed,” she said.
The social aspect of the program is just as important as those aimed at memory enhancement, according to Campbell.
“People who have this disease tend to sit and not continue with their regular lives,” she said. “[Dad] looks forward to coming and has formed relationships with everyone here. When they all participate, they learn from each other.”
Newcomb no longer is able to do the fly-tying for which he is well-known, but he still attends meetings at area salmon clubs to spend time with old friends, his daughter said.
“I like the camaraderie and I like the people,” Lloyd Willey, 76, of Hampden, said of Memory Joggers. “They can cope with me.”
Willey, who owns Canteen Service Co., continues to go to his office on Perry Road in Bangor for about two hours each day even though he has turned day-to-day operations over to his son.
“They put up with me,” he said, “but I think it’s good for employee relations since I’m still chairman of the company.”
Memory Joggers is supported by grants from the Brookdale Foundation of New York City, the Maine Community Foundation, United Way of Eastern Maine and-in kind contributions from the First United Methodist Church of Bangor, according to Fister.
For information about Memory Joggers, call 945-0122 or visit www.memoryjoggersprogram.com.