Every time David Snowden would attend The Gathering Place, his face would light up with a smile. That wide grin meant the world to his wife, Sandi Snowden, as he began to lose his memory, she said.

Those were the moments she clung to as his caregiver, and they were the moments that kept her going, she said.

Six years before his death in 2013, David Snowden was diagnosed with dementia. The diagnosis came at a time when he was working as a pastor for a church in downtown Houston and the couple didn’t know anyone, having only been there a short time. But a church in their town of Pearland would soon provide all the emotional support they needed until his passing.

“Once you get that diagnosis, you don’t know what to do. You’re just at a panic, and you’re by yourself,” Snowden said. “Filling the time is hard, but in going to some support groups we heard about The Gathering. We were in Pearland at the time, and that church reached out to us and served my husband and I through those years.”

Now Sandi Snowden has moved back to her hometown of Waco and is one of several volunteers helping The Gathering Place expand beyond its 60 locations in Houston to its first location in Waco. The program started in the ’90s in Houston through the nonprofit InterFaith CarePartners, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Although there’s not a heavy emphasis on religion, the program serves as a ministry for those living with mild to moderate forms of memory loss, Alzheimer’s or related dementia and a respite for their caregivers.

Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Austin Avenue United Methodist Church in Waco, Sandi Snowden helps residents with memory loss stretch their muscles and stimulate their minds. Through games like mini-golf and balloon volleyball, trivia quizzes, music, dancing, chair exercises and more, those with memory loss have a safe environment to stay active, said Becky Villarreal, InterFaith’s geriatric care manager and care team coordinator. Villarreal drives up from Houston every time there’s a meeting to make sure it’s running smoothly, until they can find a local coordinator, she said.

“There’s two components to The Gathering Place. Those activities of going and that sensory stimulation you get is what they need instead of sitting at home, sleeping in their chair with the TV all the time. You have social interaction,” Sandi Snowden said. “People within the church became our friends and invited us to their house for dinner. It was awesome, what they did for me. The second family is the second component. My husband and I didn’t have family living anywhere near us, but they gave us a person from the church, and he would come over and sit with David so I could go do something. It was such a blessing I wouldn’t have had, had I not gone to The Gathering Place.”

The program is expanding to McLennan County partially because the president of InterFaith CarePartners has relatives in Waco and partially because the nonprofit group has received numerous phone calls from all over the state asking how to start a similar program, Villarreal said.

Villarreal’s father had dementia also, and hearing him laugh out loud is what she misses most, she said.

“When we were at home and he was being casual, there wasn’t that jolly belly laugh we’d experience at The Gathering Place,” Villarreal said. “Whether it was something silly or something funny or something where he’d win a prize, there was that beautiful laugh. They say everybody’s laugh is unique, and his was.”

Those moments of jubilee are what make The Gathering Place beautiful, Sandi Snowden said. Up until the past few weeks, she thought she had to explain the purpose of the program to her husband. After watching others participate in the program and serving as a volunteer, her perspective has changed, she said.

“You can just say, ‘We’re going to a party,’ and it’s OK. I was worried whether he was going to be OK with this, was it silly to him? Is he going to do it?” Snowden said. “I even heard a daughter say that about her dad ‘My dad wouldn’t do those arts and crafts.’ You know what? They do. They really do.”

What some don’t realize is the amount of time caregivers spend watching over their loved ones, Villarreal said. To have even three hours to do something different is precious time, she said. The Gathering Place also offers an outlet for other caregivers to meet and talk about their experiences to relieve some of the stress and learn they’re not alone, Villarreal said.

Most times, Sandi Snowden would attend the meeting with her husband, but she’ll never forget the first time she decided to walk away and leave him in the care of others for three hours, she said.

“You know what I did? I went home. I laid down on the couch and I looked out the back window and watched the tree grow,” Sandi Snowden said. “I hadn’t been by myself, and that weight hadn’t been off my shoulders.”

The meetings are broken up into flexible time increments, with something new to do every 15 to almost 30 minutes during the three-hour period. Each meeting and activity follows a monthly theme to keep things fresh, and it’s open to everyone as long as they register, Villarreal said.

Volunteer Dianne Bates didn’t have an immediate family member suffer from memory loss but knows what to means to be a caregiver for a loved one. Bates was an only child when she cared for her mother, she said, and there were many times when she didn’t know how she could keep moving forward. When Villarreal made a presentation about it at her church, she didn’t realize Villarreal was speaking about the same program her cousin volunteered with. Once she realized the connection, she knew she had to be involved, Bates said.

“It’s very rewarding, just seeing the care partners come and enjoy themselves and seeing how they open up,” Bates said.

The program’s expansion is much more than rewarding; it’s a godsend, Sandi Snowden said. After her husband’s death, she felt a calling to serve other caregivers but wasn’t quite sure how and wasn’t quite ready to take the next step. When word reached her about The Gathering Place coming to Waco, she knew she found her calling to help others walk the same journey she did, she said.

The journey’s difficult, but the difference she saw in her husband was like night and day, she said. At home, he’d sleep in a chair in front of the television most of the time, but The Gathering Place got him up and moving.

Villarreal said she hopes the program will eventually expand in Waco the same way it has in Houston, but until then, volunteers like Sandi Snowden are just focused on ministering to those who need the support.

For more information or to register for The Gathering Place, visit www.interfaithcarepartners.org or call Villarreal at 713-682-5995.

“We loved the music and we would get up and dance,” Sandi Snowden said. “I still to this day miss dancing with him. The doctor said dance and it will all last longer, and it did. Until the bitter end, he could dance and do a two-step.”

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Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by the numbers:

In 2013, about 5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease, considered the most common form of dementia.

Symptoms typically appear after age 60, and the risk increases with age.

The number of people with the disease doubles every five years after age 65.

About 14 million people are projected to have Alzheimer’s by 2050.

The disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

More than 47 million people are living with dementia worldwide.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization

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