A “Memory Cafe” For Dementia Patients And Their Caregivers
By Anne Levin
When Donna Sobel became the director of business development at Greenwood House last August, she began searching for new, relevant programs to support the Ewing-based organization’s mission of senior health care. It wasn’t long before she found a focus.
“I did research and met with public health officials and nurses, and the topic that kept coming up, again and again, was dementia care,” Sobel said. “I was very surprised. I didn’t realize there is so much interest in this in the health care community.”
Blame it on baby boomers and medical advances that have extended our life spans. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, there were an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2015. This number is believed to be close to 50 million people in 2017. The figure will almost double every 20 years, reaching 75 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050, with much of the increase in developing countries.
Through her research, Sobel discovered that several countries across the world have been addressing these statistics with an initiative called a memory cafe. The concept — a two-hour social gathering designed to stimulate shared connections via music, art, and meaningful conversation — began in the Netherlands 22 years ago. Today, there are memory cafes all over the world, including more than 300 in the United States.
Starting July 9, a memory cafe at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville will be added to the list. Called Friends Circle memory cafe, the monthly gathering is free and open to the public. It is run by Greenwood House and supported in part by a grant from the Lawrence Township Community Foundation.
“There is a memory cafe in Philadelphia, but this is the first in this area,” said Sobel. “There are a few support groups around, but a memory cafe is more than that. It’s supposed to be a place where people feel comfortable. The person and care partner come together and enjoy themselves in a purely social gathering. It’s social, not medical. It has a cafe-like vibe. It’s laid back. You lose your diagnosis at the door and you don’t need one to come.”
There are different levels of dementia. The Friends Circle memory cafe is designed to be a safe and relaxed meeting space for anyone with changes in their thinking or memory, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. “Many of these people live alone and are functional,” said Sobel. “When it comes to dementia, there is a lot of stigma attached. People sometimes refuse to get diagnosed. There seems to be shame involved. When people get diagnosed, they don’t want anyone to know.”
The concept is geared to caregivers as well as those with dementia. “Caregivers can struggle in these situations meeting the needs of their spouse, or parent, or family member,” said Sobel. “They tend to get isolated, more so than in situations where they are taking care of people with other illnesses. Other illnesses are more embraced.”
Sobel has been working on the idea since last September. She has had assistance from Alzheimer’s New Jersey, the Mercer County Office on Aging, and other sources. She is currently auditioning musicians to play at the events. ARTZ Philadelphia, an organization that specializes in arts programs for people with dementia, has been booked for the September cafe. “We will do mostly music and art, because those are the last things people lose,” Sobel said. “The part of the brain that does music is not affected by dementia.”
Cafes will be held the second Tuesday of each month. The July 9 event will be held from 1 to 3 p.m., and as of last week 15 people had signed up. Sobel is hoping for more. “This is supposed to bring normalcy to people’s lives,” she said. “It’s not a babied-down version of anything. It is mostly an accepting place where there is no judgement, where people affected by dementia can relax and have a good time.”
Registration is required. Contact Sobel at DSobel@Greenwoodhouse.org or call (609) 883-5391 ext. 388 to sign up.