What is Side by Side?

Side by Side is a pastoral care and community outreach ministry designed as an informal-care version of a day program. Time spent at the program provides warmly encouraging fellowship for people living with dementia, and respite time for their care partners.  The program takes place in an informal and relaxed atmosphere where enthusiastic and caring volunteers walk alongside participants as friends and neighbours. 

Each participant is matched with a companion volunteer who ensures that the participant is included and supported throughout the 4.5 hours of the program.  Spiritual nurture is integrated into the program through the devotion time and in singing.  Most importantly, each person is recognized as a loved child of God with a unique and valuable contribution to make to our community just by being who they are.

A Typical Day at Side by Side

Morning Coffee30 minutes
Brain Gym ®15-30 minutes
Devotion15 minutes
Gentle Exercise15-30 minutes
Creative time (craft, game, discussion, other)30 minutes
Music Therapy0-30 minutes
Lunch60 minutes
Bocce Ball15 minutes
Singing – hymns and secular songs45 minutes
Afternoon Tea15-30 minutes

Since care partners are responsible for bringing participants and picking them up, the day begins and ends with a casual social/refreshment time that allows care partners some flexibility for arrival and departure times.  These refreshment times also provide care partners a chance to meet other care partners, and to communicate with the program coordinator. 

In general, activities last only 15 to 30 minutes, so that there is variety and no single activity goes on for too long.  Each activity has a designated space within one large room, and movement occurs between each activity.  Activities that require moderate physical exertion alternate with calmer activities.  Where possible, each activity is led by a different person, which adds interest and variety.  All are encouraged to participate, and most do, but participants may opt out of the group activities if they wish.

If a participant prefers not to take part in the group activity, their companion, with the support of the program coordinator, will offer another activity based on the participant’s interests.  This might include providing drawing materials, a deck of cards, colouring pages, a game, a word search, or conversation over a cup of tea or coffee.  When the next activity begins, the participant is again invited and encouraged to join the group. 

While most participants enjoy taking part in the group, having other choices available respects the needs and wishes of the participant and supports a positive mood that will carry over into the rest of their day.  Having a high ratio of volunteers to participants enables this.


The Side by Side Ministry at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Calgary began with a concerned pastoral care group trying to figure out a way to respond to the needs of families living with dementia, and ways to help care partners coping with the overwhelming demands of caring for a loved one with dementia.  Care partners are on alert 24/7, and are constantly adapting to changes while simultaneously grieving the losses that each of those changes represent.

While the St. Andrew’s Pastoral Care team was actively seeking ways to help, the spiritual care team at Bethany Care Society in Calgary was considering the possibility of a church establishing a day program similar to what many care facilities offer.  The Rev. Dr. Frank Breisch, then Housing Chaplain at Bethany Care Society in Calgary, approached St. Andrew’s Calgary with the idea for a church-hosted respite care program.  To members of the Pastoral Care team, Bethany’s proposal was an answer to prayer!! 

With input from families living with Alzheimer’s, the Bethany Care Society, and the local Alzheimer’s Society, the Rev. Jan Hazlett, then Associate Minister at St. Andrew’s Calgary, and currently Minister, Congregational Care, designed a 4.5-hour program and recruited a team of volunteers.  For a year before Side by Side actually began, various workshops on dementia were offered, and in October 2012, the Side by Side program began on a bi-weekly basis.  It started small….just one participant!  There were many learnings in this early stage and adjustments were made.  In January 2013, Side by Side became a weekly program at St. Andrew’s, and it has since grown to include as many as ten participants!

In October of 2014, the Side by Side ministry expanded to include a care partner support group that met monthly to build community between care partners.  The group was inclusive of care partners who no longer had a loved one attending the program, which enabled continued support and shared experiences from different perspectives along the journey. Adapting to changing needs, the group continued to meet until late 2016.

Growth has not only been evident at the St. Andrew’s program, but thanks to a grant from the Chisholm Fund, administered through the Canadian Ministries department of the Life and Mission Agency of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, a second program was started in January 2015 at Varsity Acres Presbyterian Church (VAPC) in Calgary.  The purpose of the grant was for St. Andrew’s to gain insight into the needs of other congregations by walking alongside VAPC in the start-up of their program, and to incorporate those insights into the toolkit manual.  It is hoped that this toolkit will promote and encourage new programs that will grow into a network of Side by Side programs making a difference to families living with dementia.

God is weaving a tapestry of care
that connects all of us in Grace.
Come. Be part of it.

Let’s build something together.

© sidebyside.care 2020