Among Friends board chair Bonnie Jones-Witthun started with a brief description of dementia and its impact.  Dementia involves more than just memory loss; reasoning and personality both change.  People with dementia can, however, still enjoy socializing and learning new things.  Bonnie cited an example of a woman with dementia who made a flower arrangement and said that she realized she’d never done that before.
 
 
 
Among Friends has existed for 6 years. The Board has 11 members now after gradually building up their numbers.  First Congregational Church helped start up, but Among Friends is not a program of FCC.  The agency serves all of Pierce and lower St Croix counties.  It is the only respite social program in Pierce County.  Among Friends is totally independent; there is no umbrella organization overseeing its program and operations.
 
Program creator and director Norma Revel described the Among Friends program.  She said that the goal is to give each guest a personal experience.  Among Friends has developed a 3-step intake process:  initial contact, a talk with the potential guest's caregiver, and a home visit.  The organization receives referrals from many sources.
 
Screening is important to assure that the candidate can benefit.  Both mental and behavioral status are reviewed.  The home visit is very enlightening, especially in that it gives an overview of what will benefit the candidate.  The information also helps to energize volunteers because they know something of the individual’s personal history. 
 
The initial visit to the Among Friends day center is a two-way trial for both guest and volunteer staff.  It is impossible to know for sure that the guest will be a good fit for Among Friends until they have been to the program.  Lunch is catered by a local caterer who can tailor the food to limitations guests might have. 
 
The first guest at Among Friends was a retired famer/veteran/family man who spoke very little, but when he spoke, what he said was usually a gem.  The carers called the man the Among Friends “charter member”. 
 
Respite is important for people still living at home who don’t yet need care in a nursing home or other facility, and it benefits both the person with dementia and the carer(s).  Among Friends often pairs 1 guest and 1 volunteer because so much more can be done in a 1-on-1 situation.
 
Two specific programs Norma mentioned are music and chair yoga.  They have found that music is very beneficial.  Among Friends has a musician who can play songs for guests that are likely to have meaning for the clients. Guest musicians also play music for the guests and volunteer staff.
 
The most important aspect of the facility is the relationships that develop between volunteers and guests at Among Friends.   The organization provides a meaningful and engaging experience that helps guests act in a social setting.  Caregiver respite is an important aspect of what Among Friends does.   The agency needs weekly volunteers but also need people to bring in friendly pets, collections, and interests that can trigger interaction. 
 
About the Speakers:
 
Bonnie Jones-Witthuhn, founding board chair and volunteer director for Among Friends, lives in the countryside of River Falls with her veterinarian husband.  She has undergraduate degrees in History and English; a Master of Social Work from UW-Madison; and she has worked as a geriatric social worker.  She is an ordained United Church of Christ Pastor who has served churches in Wisconsin and Minnesota for 22 years. After becoming a first time mother in her forties, she changed careers at age fifty, and taught English for 15 years. She serves on the Pierce County Human Services board of directors, the Wisconsin State Dementia Taskforce, where she chairs the Respite subcommittee. 
 
Norma Revels lives with her husband in Hudson and has family in the River Falls area. She is the part-time staff person for Among Friends who has developed the Among Friends program in conjunction with talented volunteers. She has an extensive background in social services, working across the age spectrum with birth to three services, as well as older adults. She worked for St. Croix county for a number of years, and she worked for Learning Rx.