Program director Carmen McCarthy announced that this was a special day because Irene was turning 99. She comes from Alamo for the program.
"Let's introduce ourselves by using the first letter of our names to describe ourselves," McCarthy went on. "I'm Carmen. I'm charming."
Volunteer Margaret described herself as "marvelous."
The assembled group caught on to the idea at differing levels and helped each other find the right descriptions.
Ora said she was old, but others preferred original. Jackie described herself as jolly Jackie. Augusta chose awesome but McCarthy later said it should be adorable. And around the room it went.
Next McCarthy led memory games. She'd give a hint and they would fill in the blanks. Lucky Lindy was Charles Lindbergh; Ol' Blue Eyes was Frank Sinatra; and First Lady of the Theater was Helen Hayes. The game was era-appropriate to the folks assembled.
The Valley Oak Respite Center program takes place 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The participants seem to enjoy the activities but, McCarthy pointed out, it also helps the caregivers.
"They can get their hair done - or pay their bills," she explained. "And I think programs like ours are the last thing the families have before placing them in a home. It helps keep them at home longer."
"I try to do fun things with them and engage them," she said. Some may be quiet when she plays the word games but then come to life when they sing, she explained.
McCarthy began to work as a volunteer in 1994 when the program was only one day a week. She heard they needed help and she was new in the San Ramon Valley after years on the peninsula working in the corporate world. A couple of years later she joined the staff and then became program director in 1998.
"There are 13 of these programs in the county but this is the only one this far south," said McCarthy, except for those in retirement homes. Valley Oak is run by the Diablo Valley Foundation for the Aging, which helps seniors and their families with health issues, medical care, finances and legal concerns.
Twenty-two seniors are signed up for the respite program although anywhere from nine to 16 might show up on any given day, McCarthy noted. Each session costs $30. Most of the clients arrive by Link, the paratransit service of County Connection, although some are brought by family members or caregivers.
McCarthy said she was surprised at first when families began to ask if there were scholarships to help defray the expense.
"Then I realized these people were putting their kids through school and have Mom and Dad to take care of," she recalled.
McCarthy belonged to the Danville Alamo Garden Club and hit on the idea of holding a garden tour to benefit the program. Audrey Van Poppel, who lives in Diablo, offered her gardens and the tour has begun on her estate since 2003. The silent auction takes place there, too. The tour has raised as much as $8,000 some years.
McCarthy also applied for state licensing so long-term care insurance would cover the expense for some.
She said one sad part of the job is going to the memorial services for clients.
"I don't have to, it's not part of the job," she said, "but I learn so much about them."
She said she never forgets that these frail elderly were once young and robust, doing great things and living full lives. Now she wants to help them maintain their dignity as long as possible.
The sessions include eating lunches, which they bring, light exercise and bingo.
On this Friday, the songbooks were distributed. Some opened them avidly, others thumbed absent-mindedly through the pages. Soon the hall was filled with elderly voices singing:
"Ain't we got fun...."
'Memories in the Garden'
What: Sixth annual self-guided tour of private gardens in the San Ramon Valley
Benefits: Valley Oak Respite Center, a social day program for frail seniors and those with dementia
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, June 6
Tickets: Available at East Bay Flower Co. in the Livery. Or call 945-8040.
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