Mervin Williams and Marilyn Browne-Williams have a standing monthly date night.
The Randallstown couple, who have been together since they were teenagers in Trinidad, might dance to a live band, or learn how to drum. One night they painted pictures of dandelions against a bright blue sky.
Dating is different now for the Williamses. Mervin, 68, has early-stage dementia. He sometimes forgets things. Being in social situations can be awkward.
The couple's monthly date at Integrace Copper Ridge in Sykesville alleviates some of the anxiety caused by being around others who aren't aware of, or don't understand, his condition.
The assisted living facility and rehabilitation center, which specializes in memory problems, hosts a social club to support those with dementia in a less rigid and clinical setting than group therapy or individual counseling sessions. About 25 regulars meet on the second Tuesday of every month. The year-old gathering is one of a growing number of such clubs around the state for the estimated 100,000 Marylanders with dementia.
"It is really about people not being defined by their dementia and wanting to have meaningful living," said Cindy Yingling, vice president of neurocognitive clinic operations and development at Intergrace Copper Ridge.
Integrace Copper Ridge started the club with a $5,000 grant from the Greater Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
"We all as human beings need to feel as if we are useful," said Yolanda Wright, early stage and support group coordinator for the chapter. "That helps our self-esteem and self-worth. So much of that declines when people are going through dementia. People almost have to redefine themselves so they are not only thinking about themselves as a person with dementia."
The grant is spent, but the program was so popular that Integrace Copper Ridge has incorporated it into its budget.
People with dementia can suffer from memory loss and have problems with reasoning and judgment. They might have trouble pulling their thoughts together or choosing the right words, making it difficult to communicate. It can become hard for them to focus and pay attention. All of this makes having dinner with friends or mingling at a party more challenging — and potentially embarrassing or distressing.
"Patients with dementia can have a lot of self-awareness," said Dr. Paul Fishman, professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of neurology at the Maryland VA System. "That self-awareness can generate a lot of anxiety. They become hyper-aware of what they can no longer do, and may avoid being around people."
At the Integrace Copper Ridge social club, there is no talk about dementia unless the attendees bring it up themselves. It's meant to be an enjoyable setting in which people with dementia and their families can participate in activities without feeling embarrassed if they can't remember things or find the right words to express themselves.
Mervin Williams had to stop working as a nurse and driving after showing signs of dementia in 2014. He says participants can let go of their inhibitions because they know other attendees are experiencing the same symptoms.
"It has helped me to realize that I can be myself and that I am not alone," he said.
Bonding and interacting with others can improve quality of life. The staff at Integrace Copper Ridge say people often feel isolated after a dementia diagnosis. They stay at home rather than deal with the awkwardness of their condition. Social isolation can contribute to depression and other health issues.
"We provide the place, but they provide each other," said Rusty Mitchell, the executive director of Integrace Copper Ridge.
"Social Club at the Bistro" is held at the facility's restaurant, and starts with a dinner that includes the ingredients of the MIND Diet — nuts, leafy green vegetables and other healthy foods that studies have shown are good for the brain and help slow memory loss and brain atrophy. On one recent menu was lemon-poached salmon, with its brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, and kale salad with a champagne vinaigrette.
Dinner is the time for people to hang out and catch up with other members of the group. Williams and his wife often sit with Jerry Howe and his wife, Kathy, who has Alzheimer's disease, the most prevalent cause of dementia. Kathy Howe gave up her job running a horse rescue farm after being diagnosed. The couple travel from Pasadena to socialize in a comfortable space with others who share similar life experiences.
Jerry Howe nodded across the table to the Williamses.
"These are some of our favorite people," he said. "We enjoy coming just to see them."
After dinner comes an activity. A big band might perform and get everyone dancing. The group has gone on a hike.
One recent night, a local artist helped them create watercolor paintings of a field of dandelions.
Marilyn Browne-Williams, 65, was attentive to her husband during the session. She stopped her own work to make sure he was following along.
Mervin Williams finished his painting and held it up.
"Rembrandt," he declared.
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Wayne Wray looked at his own work and laughed. Wray, a retired cell biologist and biochemist who has Parkinson's and some memory loss, said his favorite activity was learning to play a hand drum.
He said the social club helps him step out of his comfort zone.
"We scientists aren't the most outgoing people," he said. "We stay to ourselves."
Fred and Ellen Berney are also regulars. When dementia forced Ellen Berney to retire from nursing and video production, she found herself stuck in the house more than she cared for. Fred Berney said the social club has helped them both.
"She is a very gregarious person and she is happier when she is around people," he said.