It moved in secretly, like most predators do. Larry Leese had just retired from his banking job, and he and his wife Brenda were looking forward to the future.
But a short time later, Brenda noticed a change in Larry. He was having trouble remembering words, and not in the usual way that befalls many of us—forgetting someone’s name, or the lyrics to a beloved song—but something more serious. And although Larry was inching toward 70, he had been healthy and vibrant for many years.
Sadly, after a battery of medical tests, Larry was diagnosed with a form of dementia.
Like so many caretakers, Brenda was thrust into the weighty task of looking for help for her husband of 21 years. Most important for Larry, and for Brenda, was that he could find a life beyond the couple’s Collingswood home, one that could provide a social network for him, especially during the day when Brenda was at work.
“There were very limited options out there for us,” says Brenda, 56. “But now when Larry comes home, he’s so excited. And he looks forward to the next day.”
According to chief executive officer Barbara Fetty, most people in the community aren’t familiar with The Tender, which is not a medical facility, but is run by a skilled staff trained in all sectors of dementia.
Launched by physician Agnes Gowdy in 1977, The Tender, which has served hundreds of seniors, is a metaphor for a small boat used to ferry passengers to a larger ship. Gowdy’s vision was there would be a place for aging members of society, acting as a nexus from their earlier years until death.
“It’s scary when someone you love starts exhibiting signs of dementia,” says Fetty. “Denial is a powerful thing.”
Fetty says often what happens is a family member will start showing signs of dementia, but relatives subconsciously repress the truth. She says the sooner you can get them into a program like The Tender, the sooner you give them renewed life, and consequently, purpose again.
Clients—as the seniors are called—have an active day with programs that stimulate socialization. The 20 members—with the help of personnel—do exercises, play games, participate in music therapy, and are provided a snack and lunch.
“Unfortunately, a diagnosis of dementia is an enormous stress on caregivers. You always have to be on your toes: Is he walking out the door? Did he fall again? ... It’s so difficult to predict,” says Fetty.
That’s why when Fetty came on board 15 years ago, she expanded the programs at The Tender to include family members.
A monthly support group for caregivers called CARES—Compassion Access Respite Education Support—is held in the Community House and enables family members to voice concerns and address the overwhelming issues that occur when dealing with a major neurological illness. Fetty says she particularly confronts the issue of coping with stress when a loved one is ill. A lending library stocked with up-to-date information is also available.
For older folks who might live alone but can't drive, Drive People Happy is a transportation program offered through The Tender. Volunteers drive homebound seniors, who are 65 or older, to their doctors appointments and to the grocery stores.
The Tender is a nonprofit organization that relies on private donations and governmental grants for funding; although people under the age of 60 cannot access grant monies, nor can people living outside Burlington County. Daily costs are $67 a day per person.
Renie Crowder’s husband, Ralph, 87, has been a client at The Tender for two years following a series of mini strokes that caused vascular dementia. Renie describes her husband as a "guy full of life" before he was afflicted.
“The Tender has given him meaning again and it’s been a lifeline for both of us,” says Renie, of Palmyra. “I can’t say enough about the organization.”
CARES support groups meet the first Wednesday of every month from 5:15-6:15 p.m. at the Moorestown Community House.
For more information on volunteering as a driver with the Drive People Happy program or to make a donation, please visit The Tender’s website.