Becoming a caregiver for a loved one is a role few are truly prepared for. It’s typically thrust upon people, who can quickly become overwhelmed. That was Peg Lahmeyer’s situation in 1990 when her father passed away, and she and her family became caregivers to her mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She had to quit her job, even with a toddler and a two teenagers at home.
“It’s devastating for the family. It’s a 24/7 job,” Lahmeyer says. “Even now, with so many ways for people to receive education and support, there’s still such a need for awareness. When I first started taking care of my mom, there was hardly any information available about Alzheimer’s. I had no idea of where any supportive services were. That’s one reason why we wanted to do something to help families — because it is an arduous task, and caregivers need that support.”
Trying to relieve some of that responsibility, Lahmeyer in 1996 started a modest organization called The ARK of South Carolina. Financed by grant money and operating out of two rooms in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Summerville, she offered a social respite program one day a week where those needing care could be engaged in games and puzzles and other activities, allowing their caregivers to take some needed time for themselves.
Twenty-four years later, The ARK has its own facility, a handsome brick house on 5th North Street. Several days a week, it offers respite care and other programs including caregiver support and education.
It has a bus that picks up those for whom transportation is an issue. And it’s helped countless caregivers looking after loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia get the breaks that they desperately need.
“Caregivers don’t take care of themselves, because their loved ones come first,” says Lahmeyer, The ARK’s executive director. “We try to teach them, just like on an airplane when they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before others, you can’t take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself.”
Still going strong
The planning began in July of 1995, backed by a grant from the Brookdale Foundation, which supports respite and early memory loss programs. In January of 1996, The ARK opened by offering one day a week of respite care; by June of 1997, it had expanded to two days. In 1996, Nancy Tissot joined the organization as program director. She would work there for 22 years, until retiring in 2019.
Others took note. In November of 1997, The ARK began offering a respite program in St. George, at the request of the town’s mayor, David Sojourner. A year later, it started offering a third day of respite care in Summerville. Realizing that so many caregivers lacked transportation, The ARK added a van in 2000, initially through a partnership with Bethany United Methodist Church. In 2004, The ARK used grant money to purchase its own 14-passenger bus.
“We still use it,” says Lahmeyer, whose organization travels an average distance of 50 miles per day to pick people up. “It just rolled over 200,000 miles a month ago, and it’s still going strong.”
In 2001, The ARK added a fourth day of service in its Summerville location, which was beginning to feel crowded. With St. Luke’s planning a renovation project, The ARK began looking for a new home. After former Summerville Mayor Berlin Myers passed away in 2015, his wife Marlena — an ARK board member — posed a question to Lahmeyer: “Why don’t you buy my house?”
With the help of investors, a limited liability company was formed to purchase the residence, which had been built in 1940, and offered ample space for The ARK’s programs. In April of 2018, the organization moved into its new home, and began raising funds to pay off the mortgage and become the owners. “Hopefully,” Lahmeyer says, “we’ll have that done by the end of this year with the help from the community.”
More needs to be met
When the mortgage is paid off, The ARK will be able to devote more funds to its growing lineup of programs. Beyond respite care, it offers training and support groups for caregivers including the evidenced based “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” 6-week workshop. First responder and law enforcement training is offered regularly throughout The ARK’s five-county service area. There’s the Navigation Club for those who are concerned about their memory and want to learn about brain health and a healthy lifestyle. In 2016, a one day respite program started in Harleyville. The NOAH (Neighborhood Outreach Alzheimer’s Help) Project started in 2005 and continues to grow as outreach to underserved/rural areas need education, resources and support.
Its big fundraisers have become major events on the Summerville calendar. Dancing with The ARK’s Stars, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary March 14, attracted nearly 500 people last year and raised over $100,000. The Race for The ARK, set for Aug. 22, last year celebrated its 20th anniversary by attracting a sold-out field of 700 runners and raising over $38,000.
And it all started with one day a week in a local church. “It’s just amazing how it has evolved in the 24 years that we’ve been operating,” Lahmeyer said.
The real difference, though, is evident in what The ARK’s staff and treasured volunteers see every day: people with Alzheimer’s being active and engaged, and their caregivers reenergized after some time at the golf course, lunch with friends, medical appointments, or just a long nap. And the need never ceases in the Tri-County, Colleton and Orangeburg areas served by The ARK, where over 13,000 families are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
“We’re looking to the future of The ARK being around for a very long time, because Alzheimer’s is not going away anytime soon,” Lahmeyer said. “So The ARK’s services are going to be even more needed as more and more people are being diagnosed and their caregivers need help.”
Interested in learning more about The ARK, to inquire about services, donate or volunteer? Contact The ARK by phone at (843) 471-1360 or by email at info@TheARKofSC.org, or visit their website at TheARKOfSC.org for further information.