On a Wednesday afternoon at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, MN, Community Relations Director Meghan Constantini sets up the private dining room with all the elements of a good social gathering including coffee, snacks and a single large table. She’s preparing to greet 12-15 people, as she has done for the past 3 years. Guests arrive and while some pick up conversations where they left off last month, others politely ask where they are. With her usual grace, Meghan opens the meeting by inviting everyone to introduce themselves and share what it is that brings them here.
A week later, on Thursday morning, Julie Tooker, Community Relations Director at GracePointe Crossing in Cambridge, MN, greets people arriving for a social group at the Friendship Café. Some recognize her as one of the leaders of their group. Some do not, even though she has been there every meeting, every month since the group formed in September 2017. It doesn’t matter; she shakes their hands warmly and they exchange introductions all over again.
Welcome to the Memory Café.
These casual social gatherings are uniquely designed for people who are living with dementia and their care partners. Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias can often isolate people from mainstream society as they lose their ability to follow “customary” social rules. Living with dementia or caring for a person with dementia can take its toll physically, emotionally and spiritually by severing social connections at a time when it is needed most. The Memory Café is an effort to counter these consequences.
The Memory Café is a place where individuals with memory loss and their care partners can get together with other people who are on the same path in a supportive and engaging environment. The Memory Café encourages laughter, support and sharing concerns — all without the feeling of being judged, embarrassed or misunderstood. It gives people with the disease an opportunity to get out of their house and time to share a positive experience with their care partners.
Origins of Memory Café
Two decades ago, Dutch psychiatrist Bère Miesen introduced the idea of a gathering where those with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and their care partners could mingle in a comfortable and safe environment. The concept of Memory Cafés spread throughout Europe, successfully making its way to the U.S. In 2008, the renowned Alzheimer’s specialist Jytte Fogh Lokvig established the first Memory Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Since then, through a grassroots movement, hundreds of similar cafés have opened across the nation, meeting regularly in places like restaurants, senior living centers, community centers, public libraries and houses of worship.
Every 60 seconds, someone in America is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. There are over 6 million people in the U.S. with some type of dementia and this population is expected to increase significantly with the aging of the baby boomer generation. As the U.S. population ages dramatically over the next 40 years, The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is expected to double for people ages 75-84 and triple for those over age 85. Younger onset Alzheimer’s, occurring in people under age 65, is also on the rise. Community institutions and organizations are combining energies to create “dementia-friendly communities” that enable people who are living with dementia and their care partners to thrive and to be independent as long as possible. The Memory Café movement emerges from this momentum.
Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS) has a strong history of care for those with memory loss and for community outreach. PHS partnered with ACTonAlzheimer’s-Minnesota, which launched its pilot in 2012 at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, MN and soon after organized a chapter through GracePointe Crossing in Cambridge, MN. ACTonAlzheimers works with many community sectors, including health, social services, religious and government sectors to create dementia friendly communities throughout Minnesota. The Memory Cafés in St. Paul and Cambridge are significant components in this outreach to serve older adults living with dementia and their care partners.
Julie Tooker was a key leader in launching the Cambridge, MN chapter of ACTonAlzheimers. Working with Family Pathways, The Senior Enrichment Center and other community groups in Cambridge, she and GracePointe Crossing helped bring energy around making their city dementia friendly. Julie recruited Vicki Osterom, retired school administrator, to help organize and take the lead of the Memory Café. They received a grant from East Central Energy to pay for materials and refreshments. Vicki felt that this funding was crucial. “I didn’t want our guests to have to pay to participate,” she said.
Three years earlier, Meghan Constantini, with the assistance of Margaret Belanger, resident of Carondelet Village and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Chapter (CSJ) started the Memory Café at Carondelet Village senior living community, which is a joint venture of PHS and CSJ. “The Memory Café is a natural outgrowth of the unique faith-based missions of PHS and CSJ,” said Meghan. “It’s also a good fit for the Carondelet Circle community wellness outreach program that has been core to the vision of Carondelet Village,” she said.
A day at the Memory Café
The Memory Cafés in both locations have common qualities. Each month, the one-hour gatherings open with personal introductions followed by a thematic topic for conversation and activities. Activities engage both the person with the cognitive illness and their care partners. Because some of the persons with dementia may have discomfort and difficulty in verbalizing thoughts, some of the activities rely less on verbal communications. There is generous time given to open socializing around coffee and refreshments. Similar as they may be, each has its own unique character as well.
The Memory Café in Cambridge meets at Friendship Café, a local café open to the public that serves breakfast and lunch. Friendship Café is located in the Senior Enrichment Center and sponsored by the Isanti County Commission on Aging. “It started out small, just four people,” said Vicki. “But now we are up to 16 or more and it’s growing every month.” In these early months, the café has welcomed married couples, individuals and their professional care partners and even two sisters. The group gathers around several round tables decorated with the theme of the day. A recent cafe featured the topic of baseball. They responded as Vicki asked a series of trivia questions about the game and its well known players. Amid the conversation, one guest, who has dementia, began to share his memories of playing on his college league team decades ago. “It shows us too just how much the person is still there.“ Vicki said. “We just have to find a way to connect.”
ACTonAlzheimers St. Paul Chapter holds its café in the private dining room at Carondelet Village. Tables are pushed together so that the participants gather in one circle. “Love” was the theme of a recent café. Not the romantic variety, but the kind of love participants felt for anyone close to them. One attendee brought along a memory book created by her family members for her 50th birthday. She shared photos and captions written by her sisters, brothers and cousins. “Even when I can’t remember,” she said, “They remember for me.” The gathering is laced with talk and tips and stories exchanged with laughter and tears as everyone enjoys the freedom and fun. “There are no judgements,” said Meghan, “just a safe space and enjoyable time to connect with other people who understand,” she said.
The café creates time and space where “normalcy” is restored for both the person with the diagnosis and those who love them. “This is a big gift for the caregiver,” said Vicki. “They can come and be comfortable and not have to be so much on duty. It’s fun and entertaining for them as well,” she said. This is the most important work of the café: to create a place where people trust each other and find hope.
Café as mission
The Memory Café is good for people with cognitive impairment and their care partners. It is also good for PHS as it listens to God’s call to address this growing need. Other organizations that serve older adults and are looking to reach out to the greater community might consider starting a Memory Café. This requires just a few things: an open building, relationships with other organizations serving older adults with dementia, knowledgeable planning and direction, compassion, fellowship and good coffee. Many senior living communities, senior service organizations, faith communities and community groups can do this because these ingredients are already mixed into the mission and life of these organizations.
GracePointe Crossing and Carondelet Village recognize that the Memory Café is vital to their outreach and extension of their service to care for the sick, befriend the lonely and create communities of freedom and compassion that reflect the love of Christ. “What a great need there is for this support for people and their loved ones walking the path of dementia.” Meghan said, “How could we not do it?”
Find a Memory Café in your community