Inside a YMCA in Berwyn, Ill., a group of seniors sits around a table answering trivia questions about the Fourth of July.
They laugh as they are stumped by a couple questions, but one woman beams as she responds “Thomas Jefferson” when asked who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
They are taking part in a free monthly event called a Memory Café. After the quiz, they bend and stretch in a chair yoga class and then have a bite to eat from a table filled with fruit, veggies and other healthy snacks.
A small sign that this meeting is a bit different from others in this busy community center is the pamphlets spread on a table in a corner that provide information about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
This gathering is designed to provide support for people living with memory loss and their caregivers. It is also a place where they can go to relax, learn, exercise or socialize without judgment.
Memory Cafés are free and welcome people in various stages of memory loss. They are aimed at ending the stigma surrounding such illnesses and combating the depression and isolation that may exacerbate symptoms.
The first Memory Café was established in the Netherlands in 1997. It eventually spread to Great Britain and North America, and the first Memory Café in the United States was started in New Mexico. The cafes are usually started by community groups, churches, aging councils and other elder care organizations that have an interest in providing support to people with dementia and their caregivers.
The cafés take place in all 50 states at libraries, park districts, churches, community centers and other gathering places. Just getting together with others who are coping with similar problems is what appeals to Bernadine Schultz of Berwyn.
“We get to talk to other people and get good information,” says Schultz who, along with her husband, Ed, began attending the meetings a few months ago after she noticed Ed was getting forgetful.
“Sometimes just talking to other people makes a difference. Everybody feels equal here,” adds Ed.
For Tom McCann, 82, who attends a memory café in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Kathleen, 80, the meeting is where he can still catch a glimpse of his wife’s personality before she was affected by Alzheimer’s.
The café often features music and they like to get up and dance.
“It allows me to reflect back and say ‘Yes. That part of her that loved music and dancing is still there,’” says McCann. “The fun part of her is there even if, with dementia, you don’t get to see that on a day-to-day basis.”
Programs vary but emphasize brain stimulation
The programs vary at each of the cafes, but many offer activities designed to keep the brain stimulated and the body healthy. These may include scrapbooking, dancing, field trips, listening to music, or playing games.
“We do trivia because it brings back some of their memories,” says Trina Valencia, senior services director at the PAV YMCA, where the Schultzes attend. “I think it keeps them sharp and engaged.”
At Good Shepherd Church in Raleigh, N.C., where the McCanns go, the emphasis is on music, which many studies suggest can reduce agitation, relieve stress, depression and anxiety for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The café usually attracts about 50 participants and includes hors d’oeuvres and dinner followed by music performed by an entertainer or a sing-along.
Gail Vaughn, one is one of the founders of the café, decided to focus on music because she had noticed that her mother, who also had Alzheimer’s, reacted well to it.
“It got to the point where she couldn’t process how to walk to the table, but my dad would say, ‘Let’s dance to the table,’ and she would,” Vaughn says.
While the café at Good Shepherd focuses on music, another at Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks, N.D., takes a different approach.
Mary Ann Devig, parish nurse, had noticed that many people in her community didn’t want to talk about the illness.
“People were coming into my office and telling me about their spouse or parent who had Alzheimer’s,” she says. “But they didn’t want anyone else to know.”
Devig decided the café which, like all of the cafés is non-denominational, should emphasize socialization and education, and should try to dispel any stigmas about the illness.
She has since invited researchers, neurologists, and representatives of long-term care facilities and other experts to speak to the group. She also lends out books and educational DVDs for free.
Both education and socialization relieve the isolation people feel.
“It helps diminish the stigma and helps people to realize they’re not the only one dealing with this situation,” Devig says.
Not long after establishing the monthly café, she saw evidence that people were getting support from it.
“Within three months they were coming early and staying late because they had found people they could talk to,” she says.
A place to find support
In 2007, when his wife was first diagnosed, McCann admits to feeling a range of feelings, from anger to worry and doubts about how he would cope with her illness. He has found support at the café.
“It provides you with a safe place where you can be yourself and there is no judgment,” he says. “It gives you that little time out with other people.”
A study in Great Britain in 2017 showed caregivers can benefit from the support they find in Memory Cafes.
Darby Morhardt, associate professor at Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees that cafes are beneficial.
“The cafés have the potential to foster connection and communication while also offering the opportunity to relax,” she says.
Thanks in part to the Memory Café, McCann is able to focus on what is important which, for him, is to keep his wife comfortable and happy in her home.
And he still cherishes the chance to dance.
A versatile, established journalist with articles published in the Chicago Tribune and a variety of other publications including Boy’s Life and Rotarian magazine, her experience includes front-page pieces about such topics as how public libraries accommodate homeless patrons and why college students are going overseas in search of an affordable education.