Providing care for elderly or disabled relatives is no easy task. It is physically demanding, time-intensive and often mentally taxing.

Cathie Irizarry, of Mays Landing, knows this struggle well. For four years, her mother, Rose, who has dementia, has lived with her. This has meant early mornings, late nights and constant vigilance, and were it not for volunteer Mary Ellis, who provides her a precious few hours "off the job" each week, the situation would be much tougher.

For two years, Ellis, of Belcoville, has volunteered as a part-time caretaker for Rose through the Family Service Association's Project S.A.V.E., a countywide initiative that matches volunteer caregivers with people who have Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Irizarry said Ellis' help has been invaluable in helping her stay afloat amid the struggle of caring for her mother.

"My day starts at 6 o'clock in the morning, and I don't go to bed until midnight, so the few hours that Mary spends with my mom are just, you know, peace of mind for me, just to be able to get out," Irizarry said. "I have such an active life that it's a godsend to have the organization."

Project S.A.V.E. was established by the Family Service Association in May 2005 through a grant funded by the Older Americans Act. The group pairs volunteers with qualified care receivers or caregivers seeking relief.

To qualify, caregivers or receivers must be at least 60 years old, and receivers must be have a diagnosis of dementia.

Ramona Wirick, coordinator of Project S.A.V.E. and herself a volunteer, said she hopes National Family Caregivers Month, which was established by President Bill Clinton and is observed each year in November, spurs some interest in the project.

"There are 15 million caregivers in this country. They don't get paid," Wirick said. "Everybody wants to age in their home and have a complete full life with their family and their loved ones, and through this program, they can do that."

Wirick said she was inspired to help out the effort because her mother, who lives in Georgia and has dementia, has a caregiver of her own.

While Ellis jokes that she is on her way to Alzheimer's herself, she has no personal connection to the illness. Instead, she said she saw the program advertised in her church bulletin and became involved.

The self-described "Plain Jane" said that while she wishes she had the means to make a bigger impact, she's still glad to do what she can in support of a good cause.

"This is a way that I can help somebody out, and it's something I can do," Ellis said. "If I were Oprah Winfrey and had a lot of money I could do a lot of stuff, but a little, plain, ordinary person can help out and do something."

Ellis spends a few hours each week caring for Rose, which is often as simple as playing games with her or talking to her. As small an effort as it is, all involved agree that it's a big help.

"You get to know people, you get to be friends with them and they really appreciate you coming by," Ellis said. "Just a couple hours, they get to go out, even if it's grocery shopping, they don't have to worry about what's going on at home. They love it, and it makes me feel good."

For more information about Project S.A.V.E., to become a volunteer, or to request one, call Wirick at 609-569-0376. Volunteers must undergo a background check and attend one day of training by the Alzheimer's Asssociation.

Contact Braden Campbell:

609-272-7415