Jen Nowak – Director, Adult Day Services, LutheranLiving Services, Wauwatosa

The Early Bird Club is a program designed to help people who are showing signs of mild memory loss. The weekly, small group sessions focus on maintaining and enhancing memory and brain function.

Jen Nowak, director of adult day services with LutheranLiving Services in Wauwatosa, developed the program and facilitates the club meetings. 

“I developed the Early Bird Club with the collaboration of the Alzheimer’s Association of southeastern Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital,” Nowak said. Froedtert’s dementia clinic was seeing more and more people, some as young as 40 years old, with mild memory problems, who didn’t fit into the adult day program.

“Not all patients have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but some have memory problems caused by a stroke or injury, and we wanted to develop a program specifically for them,” she said.

Ninety percent of the members in the Early Bird Club are college-educated and some have run their own businesses or traveled extensively, but according to Nowak, all of the members find camaraderie in the socialization, education and unique programming provided in the group.

“A trivia question will get them talking,” said Nowak. “It’s about getting individuals engaged so we do everything from memory technique to reminiscing to socializing.”

Meetings include shopping expeditions and activities to enhance learning or trigger connections. Class exercises include scent tests, smells to stir memories or a noise to jog a recollection. Homework is assigned to provide additional stimulation between sessions and help maintain gains. Assignments are designed to stretch and involve the mind in subjects from math to history to organizational skills.

“It’s definitely a light-hearted type of a group,” Nowak said, defining her style as upbeat. “Some people will say, ‘I don’t remember,’ and we all don’t remember things, so we laugh a lot. If you ever need a pick-me-up it’s a great group to go to.”

Nowak, who has been with LutheranLiving Services for 13 years, recently received a grant for the Early Bird Club through the Helen Bader Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center on Age and Community.

“The $85,000 will help fund research to assess the impact of participation in a memory club,” said Nowak. She believes her work helps slow down the progression of memory loss.

“The goal of the research is to validate the programming and enable the implementation of a standardized curriculum, which can be shared with other organizations and disseminated through the Wisconsin Adult Day Services Association and the Alzheimer’s Association,” she said.

Sharon Braun, vice president of employee services at LutheranLiving Services, nominated Nowak for the Health Care Heroes Award.

“Jen gets the material for the program by doing a lot of research on the web,” Braun said, crediting Nowak with always looking for new ideas and finding a balance to bring fun, physical activity and relationship building to the group. “Jen is optimistic but her background in social work makes her deal in reality and fact. She focuses her work on giving people hope.”

Since the inception of the Early Bird Club, monthly assessments have shown solid memory test scores with minimal decline. Participants have expressed improved social and communication functions and less tension.

Nowak is hoping that in the near future, there will be a vaccine to help stop memory loss. Until then, she will work to find a way to just slow the progression of memory loss and help those in her Early Bird Group  retain their valuable memories and experiences.

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