Day center helps seniors gracefully age at home

Grace Lutheran Church runs center for people with memory issues

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



If You Go

What: Graceful Living Activity Center, a day center for people with dementia. Activities and lunch are provided.

Where: Grace Lutheran Church, 9900 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, except holidays.

Contact: or 360-253-8697.


As he played the keyboard, volunteer Franck Geuder led a small group of people in singing Christian hymns, many of them about someday moving onto Heaven.

“I’m pressing on the upward way,

New heights I’m gaining every day;

Still praying as I onward bound,

‘Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.'”

Marjorie Varner sang along with her husband, Duane. They’ve been married for 55 years. The retired Navy captain, who served two tours in Vietnam, still remembers some hymns even if he can’t remember much else. A couple of months ago, Marjorie Varner started bringing her husband to Graceful Living Activity Center, a day center for people with memory issues run by Grace Lutheran Church.

“I just think it’s a wonderful service, really,” Marjorie Varner said. “It has been a big help. It’s real comfortable here.”

Graceful Living Activity Center has been around about a year and remains small with six people enrolled in the program, said Amy Holland, the center’s director. Thursday afternoon, there were more volunteers than clients. Holland is the only employee, but the church is hiring a full-time activity coordinator.

“We’re kind of starting from the bottom and building it from the ground up,” Holland said. “Because we’re so small a lot of people don’t know we’re here.”

Classroom space adjacent to the church was converted to the activity center, which has plush couches and chairs, a kitchenette and a fenced courtyard out front. On Thursday, Geuder had set up his keyboard in front of bookshelves filled with blankets, board games, books and craft supplies. While everyone was singing hymns, some canvas art was drying on the patio in the sun.

After hymns, Geuder led the group through prayer for the country and for Graceful Living Activity Center.

“Be with Graceful Living so that we can help families that need extra special care,” he said.

Grace Lutheran Church has a preschool and day care for children younger than 12 that’s been in operation for decades, which isn’t unusual for a church. Its day center for people who have dementia and Alzheimer’s, though, is rare. Clients don’t have to be a particular denomination or anything to participate, but reading Bible stories and singing hymns are sometimes weaved into the day’s activities.

“We tell them they are absolutely still loved by Jesus,” said Pastor Mark Heuser. “They get so frustrated with themselves sometimes.”

Like other churches, Grace Lutheran’s congregation is older and aging. When the church started looking at what more it could do for its people and the community, the idea of a day center came up. Heuser and other members of the church noticed that a lot of people were taking care of spouses with dementia. So, they visited regional facilities and launched Graceful Living Activity Center. Day centers are intended to prolong the amount of time people can live at home before they need full-time memory care at a facility.

The ministry of providing care for people with memory problems is just as big as providing respite for caregivers, Heuser said.

“You’ve got a generation of people who still believe in ‘better or worse’ — that’s what we said — and boy, this is worse. But, I’m going to take care of my spouse no matter what it does to me,” he said. “So, they’re not getting the support they need.”

He said one woman brings her husband to the center so she can do quilting. “It’s her only outlet. Otherwise, she takes care of him all day long.”

There are also support groups that meet at the church, so people can drop off their loved ones and attend a meeting.

The center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and costs $15 an hour or $75 to $80 a day, depending on how many days per week people come to Graceful Living. Besides art and music, the group takes strolls through Shorty’s Nursery next door and does word games or recites poetry. On nice days, people sit out on the patio and sip iced tea.

There are keycodes throughout the building that keep clients securely inside and separated from other parts of the church, including the preschool and day care center, though the two groups occasionally interact.

Holland said kids and seniors sing together, and she hopes to do other joint activities, such as baking cookies in the winter.

Grace Lutheran aims to expand the facility to serve more people and offer more services, such as medical care and showers. Right now, the center can accommodate up to eight people at a time, but Heuser would like to increase the capacity to 18.

In the near future, Holland would like to make the space feel more homey with an aquarium, love seats and a television.