The thrill of dancing to the song “Hello, Dolly!” with a man with dementia

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One of the highlights of my year was dancing with a man with dementia.

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Jen Sexton dancing with Ivey member Bruce Joyner. Photo courtesy of The Ivey

Judge Bill Jones was a retired family court judge. During his career, he became a legendary advocate for children. He had forgotten all his accomplishments by the time we twirled together that morning to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Hello, Dolly!”

But I saw a new light glimmer in his eyes.

And you know what?

It was thrilling.

It’s hard for people to believe I began figuring out I wanted to work with seniors when I was only 19. My parents started a home care business in Charlotte. As I worked my way up the ranks, one of my jobs was to take the calls from desperate adult children who needed help right away caring for ill parents. That experience revealed a passion for helping families that I never anticipated.

Today, at 34, I’m the program development coordinator at The Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center in SouthPark.

The Ivey is a nonprofit center for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Members come to The Ivey during the day. They return home to the care of their loved ones at night.

Judge Jones, who passed away in May, was one of them.

My job is to get to know each member and determine the best activities to engage each person’s mind. I also help members make friends and keep them physically active. One day, I’ll organize a group of golfers on our secure green so they can putt and joke around together, like golfers do. The next day, I’ll help members paint with watercolors so they can express what’s still inside them, beyond the Alzheimer’s.

My job is to give them a rich life.

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Photo courtesy of The Ivey

My work focuses just as much on family members at The Ivey – the spouses and adult children who care for relatives with an incurable disease. I offer advice and resources.

I’ve comforted a son who’s having a tough time dealing with the reality of having to bathe his own father.

Some people might think it would be depressing to do this kind of work. It’s challenging, for sure. But it’s also joyful. I learned that when I was a kid, spending two weeks every summer with my grandmother Ellie. She was the mother hen of Noyes Manor and together we fussed over all the residents. One of my fondest memories is helping to run their morning exercises with a little assist from a Richard Simmons VHS tape.

Today, my 7-year-old daughter Ellie loves to visit The Ivey as one of our volunteers. She and other children do crafts with members, read to them, and have fun conversations. Together, we get to embrace each person with dementia and the soul inside.

Cover image courtesy of The Ivey

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