Memory Cafés: Coffee and Connection
Caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia can be lonely. The responsibilities and time commitment make it an ever-greater challenge to get out and do things you’ve enjoyed in the past. And you may feel a sense of loss as dementia causes changes in the person you’ve known.
What’s more, friends, family and acquaintances often don’t understand dementia. They may judge your family member’s behavior or your care decisions. Some may simply stop calling and visiting. Others are afraid of dementia, don’t understand the symptoms or aren’t sure how to communicate with someone whose thinking or memory has changed. That can make caregivers feel even more isolated.
A place for caregiver camaraderie
At a Memory Café, you have a chance to meet others who understand what you and the person in your life with dementia are going through, and enjoy informal social time for an hour and a half or so. It’s a welcoming place for individuals living with dementia, as well as their families, friends and professional caregivers.
And you may be able to find one near you. While the concept was first launched in Holland in 1997, there are now 75 Memory Cafés in Massachusetts alone. Most Memory Cafés are:
- Held once a month, although some are held weekly
- Located in libraries, community centers, restaurants, Councils on Aging and other convenient places
- Free of charge, although donations are accepted
If you can’t find a Café nearby, you may suggest to a location organization that they consider starting one. A free Memory Café Toolkit in English and Spanish is available through Jewish Family & Children’s Services (JF&CS), headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Visiting a Memory Café
When you arrive at a Memory Café, there’s usually some unstructured social time at the beginning. Staff or volunteers give you a nametag to make introductions easy, and you can enjoy a cup of coffee and refreshments-while visiting with other guests.
Then you and the person with dementia can participate in an activity, like singing or yoga, led by Café staff or a guest facilitator. No experience is necessary for the activities, but you can expect plenty of smiles and laughter. The goal is to have fun together.
Each Café is different, depending on its location and the people who attend. And like your favorite recipes, Memory Cafés have their “special ingredients.”
One ingredient is that guests aren’t asked about their diagnoses and don’t have to identify themselves as a person living with dementia or as a caregiver. This way, Cafés are welcoming places for people who have symptoms but not a diagnosis, and for people who feel uncomfortable talking about their diagnoses.
Another ingredient is that Cafés are designed to be fun for caregivers, too. The opportunity to meet other caregivers-and feel the camaraderie of being with people in similar situations-can be enjoyable and encouraging.
Memory Cafés also take on the “flavor” of their local community-another distinguishing ingredient. For example, there are Spanish-speaking Cafés in Boston and Lawrence.
Words from Café participants
What a Memory Café is all about is best expressed by the people who attend. One Memory Café guest I met recently is living with dementia, and she had strong words of praise for the experience of participating.
“I love to know that this is not an end for me,” she said. “It’s the beginning of a different lifestyle.”
Another guest I talked with attends a Memory Café with her husband, who has younger onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“The Café “truly is a ‘reset’ button for him-no matter how his day starts, once we arrive he becomes calm and engaged,” she said.
Best of all, she added, is the fact that “we’ve made friends.”
Please visit the statewide Memory Café directory to find a Café near you. New Cafés are being developed all the time. You can attend as many as you want. There are new beginnings and new friends waiting for you.
Guest blogger Beth Soltzberg, M.B.A., M.S.W., LCSW, directs the Alzheimer’s/Related Disorders Family Support program at JF&CS. Beth’s work includes facilitating the JF&CS Memory Café and Balancing Act group in Waltham, and coordinating the Percolator Memory Café Network, a resource for those starting and sustaining memory cafés across Massachusetts. Beth leads the Dementia Friends Massachusetts public awareness program, and is part of the statewide leadership team promoting dementia friendly community initiatives. For more information about Memory Cafés, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (781) 693-5628.