The handsome brick house off West 5th North Street belonged to former Summerville Mayor Berlin Myers, and with its airy sunroom and bright backyard retains much of the warmth of the home it once was. These days, no one lives there permanently. But it’s still a home to those dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who find hope and support within.
The house now serves as headquarters of The ARK of South Carolina, which provides programs and education for those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as support and resources for their caregivers. The sunroom, living room, and backyard are now places for stained-glass window making, dominoes, tai chi and other activities that help spur activity within the brain. And The ARK has initiated a new program for those concerned about their memory, or looking to maintain or improve it.
The Navigation Club, for those concerned about early memory loss, meets each Friday at the ARK House between 8:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The program’s mission is to engage participants in five areas — socialization, mental agility, physical activity, spirituality and nutrition — with the goal of stimulating brain activity and potentially putting any further memory loss at bay.
"Unless you truly have dementia or Alzheimer's, you can learn new things even though your brain might be a little bit slower,” says Micky Styslinger, the program’s director. “If you use all your senses and you learn something new, it creates that firing in the brain, and that's what you want. You want firing going on, so you can create more avenues to remember things. So we're going to use all our senses.”
Memory screenings are encouraged to help participants establish a baseline. “There are lots of medical reasons why somebody might have early memory loss. Sometimes when you resolve those medical issues, whether it be thyroid, blood deficiencies, or other medical needs then your memory comes back,” Styslinger says. “You just need to make sure you're talking to the doctor and that you're doing something proactive to keep your brain healthy.”
Navigation Club meetings include a healthy snack, weekly resources and recommended readings. Each of the program’s five areas helps to engage brain function, with the goal of preventing the growth of amyloid proteins that can disrupt neurological function.
Socialization: Memory loss can carry a stigma, and “a lot of times, people pull away,” Styslinger says. Suddenly “they're home alone and watching the news, with no friend circle. Nobody needs me anymore. Nobody's asking me any questions. Nobody texts me. Isolation can lead to depression, which can lead to memory loss.”
Mental stimulation: “We're going to talk about mental agility. What does that look like? How can I grow more brain cells? And that is possible,” Styslinger says. Even something as simple as a new recipe can help keep brain cells engaged.
Physical activity: “Exercise is extremely important,” Styslinger adds. “What's good for that heart is good for the brain. So when you think about exercise, it releases the endorphins. You get everything flowing like it's supposed to be.”
Nutrition: Participants will explore approaches like the MIND diet, which emphasizes healthy foods like whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and berries, and which researchers have found can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.
Spirituality: This area is not about any certain formal religion, Styslinger said, and more about centering the mind. “It could be meditation, or it could be journaling,” she adds. It is any action or behavior that helps us slow down, turn inward and reduce stress.
The Navigation Club will include speakers such as a neurologist, an exercise expert, a nutritionist and an attorney. The program is designed for those who are still driving and taking part in day-to-day activities, but are experiencing or concerned about some memory loss. It’s less about forgetting where you put car keys, and more about momentarily not recognizing what your car keys are.
"If you have dementia or memory loss, it affects the whole community,” Styslinger said. “And that's another reason why we’re doing the Navigation Club, for people to be OK talking about it and getting the resources, and not just hiding it in a closet.”
Prospective participants whose memory loss is too progressed for the Navigation Club can be referred to The ARK’s social respite program, which uses activities to keep them connected to others, and gives family caregivers a needed break. It’s all part of the greater mission of The ARK, which has been serving the community for 23 years, and whose recent move into the former Myers house has allowed it to expand its programs and the number of people it can help.
"We are not medical,” Styslinger says. “I'm a dementia specialist, but I'm not a doctor. So all I'm doing is bringing resources to the table, and doing things that I know will help them have a stronger, healthier brain.”
That much is evident throughout the ARK House — from the stained glass artwork in the sunroom pieced together by respite care participants, to the backyard where they can garden, to the technical program room where they take part in trivia and other brain-sparking activities, to the kitchen where they can prepare their own drinks and healthy snacks before a meeting of the Navigation Club.
The house may no longer serve as a permanent residence, but to those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s still very much a home.
"They'll tap their heart, and it's like they’re saying they feel the love. They feel this is right for them, that this is a place for them,” Styslinger says. "And when they feel that comfortable, then I know that I’m doing my job. Because they can't always get the words out, but if they can tell you in another way, then that's good.”
Concerned about early memory loss, or the memory of a loved one? Contact Micky Styslinger, program director of the Navigation Club, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (843) 471-1360. Further information can be found at The ARK’s website, TheARKofSC.org.