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For Those Dealing With Dementia, Good Times at the Memory Café

The Memory Café—it sounds like the name of a 1950's diner.

And, even though they both serve food, the term, "Memory Café" is the official moniker of a new breed of social gathering for seniors and their caregivers that has begun cropping up around the country.

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Originally a concept developed in the United Kingdom (UK), the Memory Café concept was ferried across the pond by Lori La Bey, speaker, radio host, and CEO of Alzheimer's Speaks. She is also one of the founders of J. Arthur's Memory Café—the first official café in the U.S.

La Bey likens Memory Cafés to, "social support groups" for people suffering from dementia and their caregivers.

One support group, hold the disease

‘Support group' is a tidy, if slightly imprecise, way of explaining the true function of a Memory Cafe.

According to La Bey, Memory Café meetings give caregivers and those stricken with dementia, "a place where they can go that is safe and comfortable, where they can have friends and interaction."

She points out that the difference between a Memory Café and a support group is that a Café gathering is more about the camaraderie, and less about the disease.

The topic of dementia does get addressed to varying degrees during each meeting, depending on the needs of the group.

Someone in the group may express a particular concern—like a caregiver who wants to know more about how to calm their loved one who is prone to sundowning. The other members then chime in and help brainstorm different techniques.

But unlike its cousin, the support group, J. Arthur's Memory Café doesn't offer things like formal dementia screening, or scripted presentations about the disease.

Keep ‘em social and sunny-side up

There is also less formal structure to most Memory Café meetings. Instead, members are afforded the ability to eat treats, play games, and chat, with the main objective being to socialize and have fun.

La Bey puts it this way, "When you hang out with your friends, do you want it to be really structured, or do you want to have the freedom to do what you like?"

When talk does turn to the disease, the specially-trained group facilitator does their best to prevent discussion of the problems associated with dementia from overwhelming the gatherings. La Bey says that "grief sessions" are to be avoided because, though grief is something to be addressed, these groups are designed to be about hope and how to live with dementia.

If a person doesn't wish to participate in a dialogue about the memory loss, they are free to stay and socialize, or do activities with others who would prefer to keep the mood light.

It is the unscripted nature of the gatherings that helps define Memory Cafés as places where people who have become isolated by dementia, can come and socialize with others who understand their struggles.

For the caregiver, the Memory Café offers a safe place to give and receive counsel and support. "It's empowering for them to be part of a group, to give advice and help others," La Bey says. "They get a lot out of being able to help other care partners, it gives them the feeling that, ‘this craziness isn't all for nothing.'"

For the person faced with dementia, the Memory Café offers a much-needed chance to interact. According to La Bey, even those whose memory loss has become so profound that it makes it difficult for them to be actively involved in the discussions enjoy it simply because they feel like part of a group again.

Uniquely personal support, on the fly

J. Arthur's isn't yet a year old, but La Bey says that the Memory Café concept is catching on like wildfire. And, within the next few months, La Bey says that there will be an online international directory for people looking for Memory and Alzheimer's Cafés near them.

Most Memory Cafés are free for anyone dealing with dementia, whether they're a caregiver, or a sufferer.

Memory Cafés in the U.S. do not receive government funding. But, La Bey thinks that it might be better if federal financial support is never offered. "In a way, I hope not. I really think that the only way we're going to make a difference with this disease is by thinking differently and collaborating," she says.

La Bey's work with J. Arthur's taught her just how important it is to think differently.

When they were coming up with concepts for meetings at J. Arthur's, the design team thought that the people coming to the Memory Café would desire some sort of organized programming.

They quickly found out, however, that that's not what people with dementia and their caregivers wanted. "They just want to be with like-minded people, to develop friendships, to laugh and have fun," says La Bey.

And therein lays the key to the unique level of personal support offered by a Memory Café: listening to those who're dealing with dementia in their day-to-day lives.

"I would like to see more people listen to people who have memory loss," La Bey says, "We're all guessing what it's like. There's no need to guess—we just need to ask."

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