GEM Offers A Little Harmony

GEM Gail Sonnesso

GEM Day Service, Inc., Executive Director Gail Sonnesso says a blessing.

“No one prepares you for this – being a caregiver,” says Noel Preston.

Preston’s wife, Susan, was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and is now undergoing treatment at John Hopkins Medical Center. He says they’ve been blessed with the specialists and doctors who have been working with them. And here at home, they’ve received another blessing – an Outer Banks non-profit group that, for the past two decades, has walked alongside residents who live with memory loss every single day.

Noel and Susan participate regularly in programs offered by the GEM (Gentle Expert Memorycare) Day Services, Inc., whose mission is to take a “person-centered” approach to improving the lives of Dare County residents living with the debilitating disease. The center focuses around dementia care, education and support.

Gail Sonnesso and her husband, Angelo, founded GEM in 1997 after being awarded a grant from the state. Ever since, the center has been filling the gaps in services for families by providing direct and caring support.

“From a caregiving perspective, Gail and GEM have been every bit as helpful as the medical community,” says Noel. “Gail focuses on the caregiver. She’s helped me to understand what’s going on. She’s been an invaluable source of information.”

GEM volunteer Susan Darling helps during Harmony Café

GEM volunteer Susan Darling helps with a craft during Harmony Café.

Dementia affects 47.5 million people worldwide, with 7.7 million new diagnoses each year. An enormous amount of time, money, and effort is spent each year trying to find a cure. While that’s certainly a worthy goal, it doesn’t help the people living with the disease right now, and their loved ones who struggle to cope as 24/7 caregivers.

That’s just where the Sonnessos and the GEM Day Services, Inc., step in.

“Gail is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known,” says Luanne Hege, a member of GEM’s board of directors. “She is never ‘off-duty.’ Those of us who have wrestled with dementia in our families know that having a caring, informed person to go to with problems, with complaints, with rants, is a godsend. And that’s just what Gail is.”

GEM’s person-centered care begins with recognizing that people are usually better off receiving care from a loved one than an institution for as long as possible. But it also recognizes that no caregiver is capable of handling the task alone.

The story of the dementia caregiver challenges is one Gail is all too familiar with. She knows that many medical professionals are more inclined to hand someone a pamphlet on medication options than to really teach them how to deal with the condition on a daily basis. Much of GEM’s focus, she said, is to bridge that gap by providing the missing resources.

GEM Gentle Expert Memorycare arts & crafts

GEM Day Services, in conjunction with the Dare County Arts Council, holds regular art therapy classes for those living with memory loss.

GEM exercise

Exercise is an important component of Harmony Café. Above from left, are Lisa Neill, Everett Baker and Kaye White. Below from left, are Susan Darling, Rev. Charles Daly and Carole Kimmel.

That includes classes on everything from art therapy and obtaining grants for respite costs, to positive communication techniques and socialization.

“It’s something you have to learn,” says Gail of caregiving. “It takes more than love and good intentions.”

Gail, who also teaches a four-week class called Caring Effectively, approaches dementia care with an infectious optimism, and nothing exemplifies that better than GEM’s Harmony Café. The afternoon respite program, held monthly, is designed to improve the lives of both the person living with dementia as well as their caregiver. It starts with simple introductions, followed by a craft project, 45 minutes of exercise, lunch, and then live music by The Riff Tides, a band that is led by Angelo Sonnesso and often performs at GEM fundraisers.

This well-received offering provides a break for everyone: the caregiver, the person living with dementia and their friends in our community. Harmony Café is the only program of its kind in Dare County.

“Exercising, socializing, and eating right is good for everybody. We’re throwing everything in that’s going to help you function on a higher level, whether you have dementia or you’re a caretaker,” says Gail.

And it’s clear that the fun-filled program makes a huge difference.

“I am amazed how they got him involved,” says Darla McKelvey of her husband Everett, who has dementia.  “At home he just sits. Here he focuses on something.”

One of Gail’s favorite success stories involves the day the group was making beaded jewelry. A man suffering from dementia was loudly protesting about being at the café and participating. Then a volunteer suggested he make a bracelet for his granddaughter. Framing the activity as being helpful, and creating something for someone else, made all the difference. The man worked diligently on his gift, and then Gail asked him what kind of music he liked. ♦

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