What’s a Memory Cafe for People With Dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Memory cafes are unique programs for people with dementia, head trauma, and other medical problems that cause cognitive impairment. The central idea behind these cafes is that people with dementia deserve respect, happiness, and social interaction.

The fact is, there are few places where this can happen. The stigma of dementia and what is perceived as odd behaviors by others are not a very good fit for the usual places where seniors go.

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A memory cafe can help dispel stereotypes and create a safe, warm, and inviting community where people with dementia are welcomed. They can also benefit their caregivers who desperately need and deserve their own safe and comforting place.

However, it is important to note that memory cafes are not respite care. They are places where both caregiver and family members participate together for a period of time. 

What Happens at a Memory Cafe?

Memory cafes are social and interactive environments meant to stimulate and engage people with dementia. Some cafes are informal and, in many ways, replicate the same experience you would have if you met a group of friends for coffee. Others are more structured.

Here are some examples of the activities in memory cafes.

  • Music events where everyone can listen and participate
  • Dancing
  • Games like puzzles, bingo, and checkers
  • Gardening and other outdoor activities
  • Educational and current events 
  • Crafts and painting
  • Outings to museums or outdoor spaces
  • Socialization with refreshments
  • Discussion groups that allow and encourage mutual interaction

Most memory cafes meet each week or twice a month and may ask for a small donation. Other cafes are funded by grants or subsidized by health organizations and programs like Family Jewish Services or other non-profit organizations. 

How Did Memory Cafes Get Started?

Psychologist Dr. Bere Miesen started memory cafes in the Netherlands in 1997. The concept then spread throughout Europe, to countries like England, Ireland, and Australia, and eventually the United States. Dr. Meisen started the memory care cafe as a way to fight the stigma of dementia and combat loneliness and isolation.

The concept also expanded in 2000 thanks to a colleague of Dr. Miesen’s, Dr. Gemma Jones,  who shared the belief that dementia was misunderstood. Groups grew in size and started to proliferate. The first memory cafe in the United States was opened in 2008 by Jyyette Fogh Lokvig, PhD.

Dr. Meisen’s philosophy was that people do not get Alzheimer’s or other dementias by choice. He believed that dementia does not define who a person is, and it is society’s responsibility to help people suffering from dementia to feel included and comfortable. A memory cafe is a real-life experience for people who have dementia, something that does not generate as organically over time.

Estimates show that over half of Americans over 60 spend more than 10 hours alone each day. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts that over 13.8 million people are expected to have Alzheimer’s by 2050, which shows how much resources are needed to support people with dementia and their families. Not everyone can afford memory care communities or private caregiving. Memory cafes are affordable (and sometimes free) opportunities for relief and enjoyment. 

How Do Memory Cafes Benefit Caregivers and Those With Dementia or Alzheimer’s?

The benefits to caregivers and those with dementia and Alzheimer’s are enormous. The heartbreak of dementia is that there is no cure, and the disease usually worsens over time. As a caregiver for someone with dementia, the responsibilities can be overwhelming and exhausting. People with dementia are often fearful, anxious, depressed, and shunned.

As a result, memory cafes can have a positive and lasting influence on both caregivers and family members.

Benefits for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s

Thanks to the social nature of it all, memory cafes can help reduce isolation, which is a major factor in developing depression, anxiety, and worsening cognition. Isolation is also associated with an exacerbation of health problems and premature mortality. 

It also helps people with dementia feel accepted and appreciated, which also reduces social stigma. Think about what it must be like for someone with dementia to go to a senior center, for example. How do they fit in? What if they can’t follow conversations or get lost? The fear and anxiety can be very intense in these situations.

A memory cafe is a place where someone feels comfortable since there are no expectations. Odd or confusing behaviors are the norm. Even if your loved one forgets the great friend they met one day at a memory cafe, it doesn’t matter. They can strike up their friendship again next time!

As mentioned above, folks with memory issues get a chance to improve their social and activity skills. Any opportunity a person with dementia has to enhance their skills helps in other social situations. Family gatherings might not seem so intimidating with the confidence gained from being with other people in a memory cafe.

A memory cafe offers more quality time with a family caregiver and a break from routine. Both the caregiver and the patient have a variety of ways to interact, and helps to organically improve the caregiving experience at home as well.

The possibility of avoiding memory care placement by keeping someone with dementia occupied, happier, and less anxious becomes more plausible thanks to repeated attendance at memory cafes. You can help avoid ming your loved one into a memory care community, as one of the challenges in caring for a loved one with dementia is agitation, wandering, and problems with aggression for family caregivers. Many of these behaviors can be reduced by keeping a loved one occupied and distracted.

Finally, at the core of it all, memory cafes focus on the person and not the disease. You know the drill, doctor, and healthcare visits always seem to address the “progression” of dementia. In memory cafes, people don’t talk about diagnoses with your loved one. The focus is on who the person is now and what they need and respond to. It is about letting them be themselves, which can be freeing.

Benefits for the caregiver

Although memory cafes are not respite in the real sense of the word, they can provide a great deal of relief and respite in their own way. Trying to develop activities and distractions every day can be tiring and tedious for both caregivers and family members. Memory cafes offer various things to do with other participants and between caregiver and loved one.

Also, caregiving can be a very lonely job. As a caregiver, you may have given up many of your usual activities and social engagements. Being with other caregivers and their loved ones gives you a chance to connect with other people while feeling supported and appreciated by people who know what you are going through. A memory cafe can help prevent caregiver burnout, which can be a common problem.

Being with other caregivers of family members with dementia is a window into ideas, resources, and support. Every caregiver has something to offer by way of everything from how to get a loved one in the shower to techniques on how to deal with challenging behaviors. Sometimes having others’ expertise means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and neither do they. Caregivers can be open about the challenges of caring for someone with dementia.

Also, family and friends often don’t understand dementia. They may feel frightened or not know what to do and stop visiting and calling. In a memory cafe, everyone knows and feels comfortable with dementia since they live with it every day.  Caregivers report feeling “cared for” and safe in a memory cafe. A memory cafe is a place where both caregivers and people with dementia feel accepted and understood.

How Do You Find a Memory Cafe in Your Area?

Memory care cafe listings may not be up to date, but an excellent place to start is the Memory Care Directory. Due to the pandemic, many memory cafes have moved online through Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. However, don’t assume that the program you are interested in is only online. Inquire about participating in person and what safety protocols are in place.

Two other good sources for finding memory cafes are Aging and Adult Services and the Alzheimer’s Association. Both of these organizations’ local offices may have more up-to-date information on memory cafes in your area. The other place to look is at assisted living communities that have memory care units. They may also sponsor memory cafes.

Memory Cafes for People with Dementia or Alzheimer’s

 A memory cafe can be a lifesaver for you and your loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The challenge may be finding one in your community, but if there isn’t one where you live, consider getting some like-minded people together to start one. The benefits to caregivers, their families, and the community can be immeasurable. 

Looking to learn more about dementia or Alzheimer's, read our guide on the best books on dementia care.


Sources

  1. “Facts and Figures.” Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures
  2.  Plater, Roz. “Memory Cafes Help People with Dementia as Well as Their Caregivers.” Healthline. 6 February 2020, www.healthline.com/health-news/memory-cafes-help-people-with-dementia-and-caregivers
  3. Offord, Catherine. “How Social Isolation Affects the Brain.” The Scientist. 13 July 2020, www.the-scientist.com/features/how-social-isolation-affects-the-brain-67701
  4. “A Qualitative Study of Carers’ Experiences of Dementia Cafés: A Place to Feel Supported and be Yourself.”  National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5527402/ 
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