Church offers Oasis for adults with dementia and for caregivers

Bronwen Zilmer (center) leads a memory-stimulating game during The Oasis, a ministry First Baptist Church in Lewisville offers to adults with dementia and their caregivers. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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LEWISVILLE—For four hours a week, a Lewisville church provides adults with dementia and their caregivers a much-needed Oasis—a safe haven and place to find refreshment.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Thursday during the school year, up to 26 adults with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia gather at First Baptist Church in Lewisville.

Volunteers lead memory-stimulating activities and physical exercises. Participants—who range in age from 40 to 92—delight in hymn singing, a shared meal and opportunities for social engagement.

For those four hours, their caregivers enjoy a welcome break that allows them time to attend to personal business—or just unwind.

Ministry birthed from personal experience

Bronwen Zilmer leads participants at The Oasis through a series of dexterity exercises during a time set aside for chair aerobics. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Bronwen Zilmer founded The Oasis out of a need she discovered through personal experience. Her father, Billy Hyden, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 58. Six months later, her mother died from complications related to treatment for leukemia.

Zilmer—a 20-something young professional who had just been married two years—suddenly became the primary caregiver for an adult with dementia.

“It was a role that I never thought I’d be in,” she said. “I was a businessperson, involved in software implementation. I was not expecting life to take that turn when I became the fulltime caregiver for Dad.”

Zilmer learned two important truths. First, she wanted her father to have opportunities to socialize and participate in meaningful activities. Second, she found out caregivers need a respite from the 24-hour-a-day stress of watching over their loved ones.

Eventually, her father’s illness advanced to the point where he moved into a memory care facility, where he lived until his death nine years ago.

Provide a break

Stephen Hatfield (left), pastor of First Baptist Church in Lewisville, leads a time of hymn singing during The Oasis. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Zilmer started a monthly support group for caregivers at First Baptist Church, sponsored in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Dallas. She learned how vitally important—and often inaccessible—respite care can be for caregivers.

“Caregivers need a break—a free break,” she said, pointing out that adult daycare for individuals with Alzheimer’s or related conditions can be “so expensive.”

The idea of The Oasis began to take shape, and she presented the idea to church leaders who pledged their support. Then she began to recruit volunteers—enough for a one-to-one ratio of volunteers to program participants. The Oasis launched in February 2015.

‘Moments of joy’

Steve Kavli, former Southern Baptist missionary to Thailand, enjoys his turn at bat during a wiffle ball game at The Oasis, while founder and coordinator Bronwen Zilmer cheers him on. (Photo / Ken Camp)

“We started with 12 participants and 12 volunteers. Within two years, we had eight on the waiting list,” Zilmer said. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of keeping them waiting. By the time we had an opening, the people who would benefit might not qualify anymore. So, we more than doubled the size of the program, with two groups of 13 participants.”

Each week, the four-hour event centers on a theme. At a recent baseball-focused gathering, participants shared memories of playing ball as children and took part in a “name that player” game in which they tried to identify famous baseball players from the past. They even participated in an indoor wiffle ball game where nobody was allowed to strike out.

“Our goal is to create moments of joy, and I feel like we do a good job at that,” Zilmer said. “We give participants a home—a place to belong again.”

The majority of participants are from outside the membership of First Baptist in Lewisville. The volunteer base typically has been 60 percent members and 40 percent nonmembers, but several volunteers have started attending the church as a result of the relationships they developed at The Oasis.

‘We do life together’

Steve Kavli, who served 15 years in Thailand with his wife Sue as Southern Baptist missionaries, became an Oasis participant last November after an early diagnosis of Lewy body dementia.

Sue Kavli, professor and director of research at Dallas Baptist University, grades papers during the four-hour break The Oasis offers from caregiving. (Photo / Ken Camp)

“The Oasis enables people with dementia to have life,” he said. “We do life together. We talk, share stories and do activities. It’s so easy to get caught up in the medical aspects of our conditions that we don’t do life.”

Sue Kavli, a professor and director of research in the Gary Cook School of Leadership at Dallas Baptist University, spends her four-hour break each week grading papers and taking care of other professional responsibilities.

“The church has been so kind to let me keep office hours here and to make me feel at home,” she said.

‘The body of Christ to us’

During her time at First Baptist in Lewisville, she sometimes meets with DBU students from the northern part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and participates in videoconferences on equipment the church makes available.

The Kavlis drive about 60 miles roundtrip from their home in Grand Prairie to participate in The Oasis. They found nothing comparable—certainly nothing as “Christ-centered”—closer to where they live, Sue Kavli said.

“Steve was so desperate to be with other people. This is a place where you don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to hide anything,” she said. “They really are the body of Christ to us.”

‘Time to give back’

Virginia Polser (left), a volunteer at The Oasis, works with other volunteers to prepare a fruit snack for program participants. The fruit bouquet was a gift from a Tyler church that observed the Lewisville program and hopes to start a similar ministry. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Virginia Polser’s husband, James, was diagnosed with temporal dementia in 2007. She was part of the caregiver support group where Zilmer first began to discuss the possibility of The Oasis. Her husband benefited from its ministry until shortly before his death in 2017.

“I decided it was time to give back, because it meant so much to me,” Polser said.

Initially, she volunteered once a month, but she soon decided that wasn’t enough.

“It’s such a rewarding thing—such a blessing both to the participant and the caregivers—that I started volunteering once a week,” she said. “And it turned out to be such a blessing to me. It’s opened up a new group of friends for me.”

Share the program

As The Oasis has grown and gained a positive reputation, other churches have approached Zilmer for advice on how to launch a similar ministry.

“My mission now is to share the program with anyone who wants it,” she said.

Zilmer helped Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas launch its Friday Friends ministry several months ago, and she also has consulted with Methodist, Episcopal and Disciples of Christ congregations.

“I am eager to share all of our materials and information,” she said.

Contact Zilmer at (214) 394-4721 or bronwenzilmer@gmail.com.

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