Growing Connections program ‘growing optimism’ in Minnesota Alzheimer’s community

Growing Connections program ‘growing optimism’ in Minnesota Alzheimer’s community

Growing Connections program ‘growing optimism’ in Minnesota Alzheimer’s community

Even on the brightest, most clear day at the Hopkins Activity Center, you’ll find even more sunshine inside when the Growing Connections program is in session.

The rows inside a classroom were made up of pairs on Monday morning; each included someone living with early-stage dementia and their caretaker.

But to the casual onlooker, it’s a group of friends making and canning raspberry jam together as they fill the room with laughter and sweet smells. Volunteer master gardeners from the University of Minnesota Extension cracked jokes as they gave instructions, encouraging participants to “stir, stir, stir” their bright red, homemade jam.

“It just refocuses me,” said participant Jane Chang. “I am always thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ But I forget all about that when we’re doing the Growing Connections program.”

Chang has been attending the free gardening program each fall and spring since it began in 2017, the year coincided with her dementia diagnosis.

“For a long time, I think I was pretty depressed,” Chang recalled. “When you first get this diagnosis, you think that’s the end, you know, there’s nothing left for you. But that’s really not true.”

Asked what changed her perspective, Chang said simply, “Well, time.”

“It wasn’t the end that fast, so I’m still here. I’m still talking, right?” she asked rhetorically, laughing as she turned to her husband of 41 years, Hsien-Hsin Chang, before adding, “And as long as I have this guy by my side, I’ll be fine.”

Jane Chang didn’t answer a single question without giving thanks to her husband who has been her constant reminder to keep a positive outlook and to let go of the stigma.

“We got to know quite a few people in such a similar situation as we are and that convinced us that there is still a future. It’s not a death sentence with the diagnosis,” Hsien-Hsin Chang added.

“You’ll still have some time that you can, indeed, enjoy your life. And you can still see your grandkids growing up.”

A similar sense of optimism could be heard in an interview with Ann Thureen as well. Thureen is a master gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. She is also considered the mastermind behind Growing Connections, a program she believes is unique to Minnesota.

“I think people are more hopeful as they’re seeing possibilities of cures, and also, a lot of the stigma is going away,” she said.

“It used to be nobody would talk about this, right? And now, people will talk about it.”

Thureen, too, spent time caretaking for a relative, which led her to the Alzheimer’s Association and eventually, to organizing and running Growing Connections with the help of many more master gardeners.

Thureen and the Changs know all too well that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows — or, in this case, berry jam and bird watching — but they agree that continuing to grow accessible programming with an emphasis on socialization and learning something new is a step in an optimistic direction.

“My big thing is I’m not done yet,” Jane Chang said in conclusion. “So I’m going to keep going as much as I can, and with this guy as support.”

Tuesday marks the final Growing Connections session for the year in Hennepin County. It’ll be back in the spring, Thureen said, along with separate sessions in both Wright and Dakota counties if there’s enough interest.

“The biggest thing that surprises us is, we know that there’s a lot of people that could benefit from this program. And we don’t always have a huge attendance,” she continued, adding, “You don’t have to have a green thumb. You don’t have to garden. You can just learn along with the rest of us.”

Thureen expressed hopes of expanding to other parts of the state.

“We’re hoping to expand this to other parts of the state, and we have a lot of master gardeners that can help make that happen,” she continued.