Meeting friends at a café paints the image of gathering around tables with hot coffee and tasty pastries, something greatly missed these past months enduring COVID. What if the café looks a little different these days? What if instead of sitting down at a table, friends are encouraged to sit at their own computer screens, cameras on, coffee in hand? How would it feel to be greeted by friendly faces and voices — very close in, without ever leaving their home?
Welcome to the virtual Memory Café, brought to you by Zoom®!
Such has been the transformation of the Memory Café, which, before COVID restrictions, had been meeting Carondelet Village twice monthly since 2015. Carondelet Village in St. Paul, MN, a shared ministry of Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS) and the Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Paul Chapter (CSJ), is deeply committed to supporting persons who are living with dementia.
This gathering offers a chance for individuals with dementia and their caregivers or family members to meet with others, ask questions, and learn from their mutual experiences. Meetings are informal and provide a safe social environment in which individuals learn new skills, undertake meaningful activities and listen to guest speakers and enjoy refreshments. Carondelet Village strives for the feeling of a coffee house or house party, rather than a therapy session. The virtual Memory Café carries forward the same concept and objectives as the in-person Memory Café.
Meghan Constantini, LICSW, Community Relations Director, facilitates the meetings that had been hosted in the private dining room of Carondelet Village. She started the café, she says, “to end the stigma of thinking these individuals aren’t whole.”
Meghan says that The Memory Café would not have succeeded without resident and CSJ Margaret Belanger. Margaret dedicates her time and leadership to the café because, she says, “it provides an opportunity to learn about available resources, tips on communication, fun activities focused on persons dealing with memory loss and whatever those gathered choose to talk and laugh about! Jokes are always welcomed!” For nearly six years, they have been welcoming people living with dementia and their care partners. Some are Carondelet Village residents; others are people from the greater community.
In the past year, COVID has changed things significantly for the café. No longer able to meet safely in person, the team at Carondelet Village reinvented the café setting to be held in a virtual venue through the video conference platform, Zoom. The migration from physical to virtual came with some challenges, but the rewards were greater. “It was hard to find time to start our virtual café, because of staffing shortages, COVID and just getting word out,” stated Meghan. The saving grace was interns Kim Tran and Karoline Steil (BSW), from The University of St. Thomas, who helped the Carondelet Village Memory Café go virtual. They were able to launch the program and all the technology that went with it so that café participants could continue to gather. Meghan said, “The most rewarding thing was just being able to meet and have conversations without masks over Zoom.” It is the simple things that make people happy.
On June 7, 2021, the last COVID-restricted virtual café took place. While Zoom might be hard to work sometimes, to the participants it is “beyond their wildest dreams” to stay connected and see people. From Carondelet Village to Eden Prairie, participants were able to share their struggles and their advice for newcomers. As they would say “the door is always open.”
During the 1-hour meeting, participants were able to learn more about Dementia Friends, a program for people to learn and talk about dementia, then take action based on what they learned. They utilize the Zoom breakout rooms for smaller conversation circles where they can learn more about each other. Participants were able to share their favorite ice cream topping, then their favorite sport teams or athlete to kick off the conversation. The breakout rooms allow for more personable conversation with others whom they might not know.
Meghan wants people to know that "the more Memory Café’s there are, the more aware people are and the less stigma there is surrounding dementia and talking about it.”
She has seen that when people become more aware and less fearful of dementia, they can help make individuals suffering from it feel more welcomed and whole. Margaret would add, “ALL ARE WELCOME! While there are opportunities for conversation and sharing, folks are encouraged to participate in a manner most comfortable for them. Often community forms with those who come regularly. You are among folks who are like you and/or are walking with you on this journey! We need each other!”
Now, with community restrictions lifting, the future of the café is in the works. Meghan is aiming for gatherings twice a month, alternating between in-person and Zoom settings. “Zoom has made it easy for family members and snowbirds to attend and allowed for the café to grow,” she said. A bonus will be when they can have ice cream socials again — a café favorite!
Margaret remains all in, saying, “I hope that Memory Cafés will evolve into a common support for folks with dementia. Loss of memory heightens our sense of vulnerability, and some folks tend to withdraw as they are unsure if they will respond appropriately to what is being asked or said. Memory Cafés offer opportunities to ‘come as you are’ and be accepted and supported!”
A familiar face will still be at the café and at Carondelet Village. Kim Tran has returned to serve as the interim Resident Services Specialist. "I like that PHS is so open and welcoming.The residents here are lovely and have been supportive of me.” She added, “The environment here at made me want to work here. I will give full credit to Meghan Constantini and Anne O'Connor [Campus Administrator] for creating that environment for me and encouraging me to grow and explore as an intern.”
History of the Café
The Memory Café, also known as the Alzheimer’s café, originated in 1997 in Holland by Dr. Bére Miesen. It was first brought to the United States in 2008, by the renowned Alzheimer’s specialist Dr. Jytte Fogh Lokvig. She established the first in Santa Fe, NM, and at the same time Lori La Bey started one in Roseville, MN. Carondelet Village was among the first PHS communities to introduce the Memory Café followed by GracePointe Crossing in Cambridge, MN.
The gathering was first named after the Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Dr. Miesen coined the named because he believed it formed a sense of advocacy for the disease and made people aware. However, it has been referred to as Memory Café, to dispel the assumption that participants had to have Alzheimer’s to join and broaden participation to include persons living with any form of dementia and their care partners.
Carondelet Village started partnering with ACTonAlzheimers-Minnesota in 2012. ACTonAlzheimers works with many community sectors, including health, social services, religious and government sectors to create dementia friendly communities throughout Minnesota.The organization is preparing Minnesota for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Carondelet has been holding meetings for the past six years thanks to the opportunity to partner with ACTonAlzheimer’s.
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month, aiming to educate the public about Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. As many know, Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia causing a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. This month is all about starting conversation about brain health and how to help those who need it most. The Memory Café is just the place for such conversations.
Café as a Mission
Carondelet Village recognizes that the Memory Café is vital to its mission and an extension of its 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, adding, “how could we not do it?”
“We Will” is a series that spotlights inspiring examples of teamwork at PHS. With God’s blessing, We Will work together to build a better, brighter future for the older adults we serve.
If you are interested in attending a memory café, contact Meghan Constantini at Carondelet Village for more information about the café at Carondelet Village or visit www.memorycaredirectory.org to find a location near you.