December 5, 2023

What is a Memory Café?A Memory Café is a safe and comfortable place where families living with dementia can go together to experience connection and engagement for both care giver and their person with memory loss, or other brain changes. The goal is to provide a supportive environment where you can openly share your journey with dementia with others, as well as hear and learn from other families’ experiences. Professionals in the field of Dementia are also there to provide support and guidance.

Why is it so special?Many families with someone who’s experiencing memory loss aren’t comfortable knowing what to do or say when they’re with others, or when in public settings, especially when things become a little awkward. It’s also quite common for families to stay home more and minimize or cut off social ties. It’s also rough to face the reality that their friends have begun to become scarce because they too don’t know what to do or say and become uncomfortable.

At Café, care partners come together for typically 90 minutes, to socialize, engage, receive cognitive stimulation, emotional and physical support and so much more in a very welcoming environment. You connect with others who understand what you’re experiencing. At in-person Cafés, members enjoy coffee, pastries and social time with others experiencing many of the same daily changes and challenges. After social time the group splits up with an engagement class for those living with memory loss while their care partners convene in a support group. Memory Cafes are free, open to everyone in your circle, and you make new friends!

Who typically attends these events?While the concept of the Café model was designed as a social outlet for families who were experiencing isolation, loneliness, and truthfully, stigma, living with a dementia diagnosis, anyone experiencing cognitive change, (Parkinsons, stroke, brain injury) is welcome. As a care ‘partner’ you may be a spouse, child, sibling, parent (yes, this happens), best friend, professional caretaker, or neighbor. Dementia is a family disease. Everyone in the family, in your circle is affected and welcomed.

So, what’s the engagement like?Each café has its own routine and flavor. Typical engagement would be any kind of program that introduces information in an informative, interactive, and engaging way. It often is multi-sensory and includes music.

Music that is associated with learning or movement is very popular as it opens connections for people experiencing brain change. For instance, the history of jazz could include some or all of the following: pictures and stories of composers, the story of their life and how they got started or got famous, and examples of their music. The magical element is weaving in the involvement from the participants to share their personal experiences with any of those components. Café members will share stories of concerts they attended, special memories involving some part of what was just presented to them. Sometimes members know the people in the presentation personally, or have first-hand knowledge with the topic presented. Our members share these experiences and memories with the class facilitator. The discussions become multi-plex with many members involved.

Music and movement are hugely popular at our Sun Lakes Memory Café and other cafes I connect with regularly. Our instructor plays music and then leads the group to exercise. They can stand or sit, their choice (based on their overall abilities and safety needs) and experience gentle movement, aerobics, tai chi, yoga, or drumming. A recent class had Styrofoam drumsticks that light up in a rainbow of multi-colors as participants drummed along to exercises in tune with the beat of the music. It was utterly magical!

Art is another medium in many cafes, from the simplest of activities to more complex components for those who are able. Instructors have woven together the individual pieces from the group and designed more elaborate pieces. The group has authored fabulous short stories from looking at famous works of art and imagining what was happening in the art piece.Instructors have taken members to faraway places with pictures, videos, stories, books, artifacts, music and food. Again, these experiences stir up memories and stories members can share. Sometimes the lessons are interactive in the presentation or reading of information.Some cafés have care partners working together with their loved ones to make crafts, play games, create objects or make food. The possibilities are endless.

How did all this begin?The concept of an Alzheimer’s Café was founded in the Netherlands in 1997 by a Dutch psychiatrist. The concept then moved to England in 2000 and began to grow abroad. The first U.S. Alzheimer’s Café opened in Santa Fe, NM in 2008. As the concept grew in the United States, they came more familiarly called Memory Cafés. Here in the Phoenix area, we have thirteen with more on the horizon shortly. Tempe championed the first memory café in Arizona.

Additional Benefits and Wrapping it up…Memory café is a warm, welcoming, and safe place to go for persons with memory loss and anyone in their circle. You meet new people, establish new friendships, find purpose and feel valued in a place you can call your own.

Those benefits are equally profound for caregiver! You will engage, share, listen, laugh, cry, be vulnerable, and learn. In the process you find that you’re not alone!  Others experience exactly what you’re experiencing or almost what you’re experiencing, but with a twist! Discovering what hasn’t worked for members and how others are successful adds tools to your toolbox. You may be surprised to learn that you’ve got experiences to share that others are thrilled to receive. Lastly, and this is a biggee – you’ll figure out that adapting and changing is your role now that your partner may not be able to do things they once did, and that their capacity to adapt and change is losing ground.

How do we find a Memory Cafe near us?Currently, Phoenix hosts several (one bi-lingual Spanish) Cafés. Surprise, Glendale, Mesa, Fountain Hills, Scottsdale, Tempe, Paradise Valley, Ahwatukee, and Sun Lakes host. Most are in-person but there are on-line options. Tucson hosts three and Casa Grande and Northern Arizona also have one each. More Memory Cafés are on the horizon. In the meantime, hopefully one of these will be easily accessible to your family/friends.

As the Chair for our Sun Lakes, Arizona Memory Café, and from listening to the stories from all our Café Chairs, and experiencing our members learn, understand, adapt and find hope – I wholeheartedly believe this concept is completely genius! Memory Cafés serve the whole family and are lifechanging for living better with dementia. For more information or to get involved and get one started, contact Janice Greeno, Banner Sun Health Research Institute at 623-832-6637. For a complete current list of state-wide Cafés, send me an email request: elaine@successfulagingaz.com. For Café’s throughout the United States, check out https://www.memorycafedirectory.com/find-a-memory-cafe.

Share this with someone in need. You’ll both be glad you did.

Elaine

A condensed version of the article was published in the Arizona Republic, November 2023

About the author 

Elaine Poker-Yount

Elaine lives with dementia both professionally and personally. She has worked with the senior and Boomer population for 25 years and is passionate about helping everyone be successful as they age. 

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