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Photo courtesy of The Brain Fitness Club

The Brain Fitness Club members participate in activities such as pool, foosball and Wii games at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, Florida.

Alzheimer’s program boosts more than the brain


Julie Dwyer
January-February 2017


For nearly 10 years, people with early memory loss from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia have been gathering at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, Florida, to give their brains a workout.

And that's just one benefit of the Brain Fitness Club. Members also are building confidence and camaraderie during their four-hour classes twice a week.

"The reason why our program exists is because people with dementia didn't feel like they had any place to go" beyond adult daycare and support groups, said Peggy Bargmann, a registered nurse and director of the program.

Seeing the need for services for individuals in the early stages of the disease, Bargmann, in collaboration with local aging professionals and First Church of Winter Park, launched a 10-week pilot program in 2007. The church provided startup funding and a space to hold classes.


The idea was to offer a place where those with mild cognitive impairment and early dementia could gather for support and brain-healthy activities, such as games, puzzles, exercise and art.

The strengths-based model was a success, and the church adopted the program as a full ministry in 2008.

"This has been a wonderful match for our church, a wonderful blessing," said the Rev. Gary Rideout, minister of congregational care. "We have a very organized health and wellness ministry here at this church ... part of our whole message is that we don't just care for your spiritual needs, we care for your body, mind, soul and strength, as the scripture says. We care for the whole person."

Bargmann said members tell her the best part of the club is being with other people who understand what they are going through.

"People with Alzheimer's disease live with Alzheimer's disease — they live very active lives. And when they have an opportunity to be with other people that are experiencing what they're experiencing and have a safe place where they can say, ‘Oops, I just forgot,' and everybody else says, ‘Gosh, that happens to me, too,' — that's what they tell me is a value."

The Brain Fitness Club operates three 14-week semesters per year, led by staff, volunteers and students from the University of Central Florida and other area colleges. Two groups of 16 attend classes at Winter Park, and one group is at First United Methodist Church of Orlando, which began hosting the program in 2015.

Plans are in progress to expand Brain Fitness Club in Florida, Bargmann said, and to form a nonprofit so that the program can be replicated in other states.

Over the past decade, the curriculum has evolved based on feedback from members and their families and to keep up with new science and literature, she said. "We are really trying to balance our program in really looking at how do we stimulate the mind, how do we destress — so the meditation, the prayer, whatever we can add — and then the physical aspect."

She said it's important that activities challenge members but not frustrate them. The goal is to boost self-esteem.

Bargmann recalled one man showing up to class feeling dejected. His facial expressions and body language told her that he was having a bad day. He had been struggling with recognition and not being able to accomplish things he had done in the past.

By the end of the day, she said, he was a different person. "He had a smile on his face, he high-fived with one of the staff members and said, ‘I've still got it.'

"It's a pretty uplifting program to work for, because all of us who do it work hard, but we go home at the end of the day really feeling good that we've made a difference in the lives of these individuals."

Julie Dwyer is general church content editor with United Methodist Communications.