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Published Thursday, January 21, 2016

Memory Café Serves Up Cup Coffee and Connection

By Amy Forman

Sharing a dance at a recent JFCS Memory Café

A cup of coffee tastes especially sweet at the Memory Café, according to one elderly Belmont couple. The monthly Memory Café, sponsored by Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS), has become a high point of their day-to-day lives as they learn to live with memory issues that are associated with a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

The meetings – which take place in a lovingly transformed conference room at JF&CS headquarters in Waltham, complete with gingham table cloths, LED candles, flowers and freshly brewed coffee – focus on making people with dementia and their caregivers feel safe, supported and successful.

“The population of people living with Alzheimer’s or another condition that causes dementia is growing so fast,” said Beth Soltzberg, manager of the Alzeimer’s/Related Disorders Family Support Program at JF&CS, adding that the burgeoning population calls for a community-wide approach to make communities livable and inclusive for people living with dementia as well as their care partners, and for programs that speak to emotional health. JF&CS’s Memory Café, implemented two years ago as an intergenerational partnership with Brandeis University, was designed to address all of these issues. Each event – open to all, regardless of religion – features guests, often with an arts component, and an interactive program. Past guests have included dancers, poets, storytellers, musicians and an art educator. Brandeis students are present to co-host each event and provide a warm welcome.

Brandeis student Maggie Ziegel shares a smile with David.

A Memory Café is an intermediary between more formal support groups and just going out to a coffee shop. “It is a social gathering for people living with dementia due to any condition, said Soltzberg, adding that there are eight or so common causes of dementia, including stroke and Parkinson’s Disease. “It is social in nature. No one asks who is the care recipient, or who is the provider. Many do not feel comfortable with a label – it is very stigmatized in our society – or because sometimes in the advanced stages there is diminished self-awareness. A lot come to the café because there are no labels.”

The interactive component fosters connection to others in the room. “It gets people laughing, smiling and sharing something authentic about themselves,” said Soltzberg of the free events.

“The environment is fun, supportive, friendly and non-competitive,” said the Belmont couple. “We very much enjoy the social interaction of meeting new and past participants as well as the Brandeis students who make us elders feel connected to the young generation.”

A warm moment

The JF&CS Memory Café has been so well-received and has generated so much interest from other organizations that JF&CS maintains a directory of other Memory Cafés in the region on their website. A memory café network called “The Percolator” meets quarterly to help other organizations start and sustain Memory Cafés. Following a JF&CS program last fall on moving toward a dementia inclusive community, there is also an effort to develop an outreach program for synagogues.

“Faith communities are really important entities for improving opportunities for families living with dementia,” said Soltzberg. “When people are dealing with chronic conditions of any kind, their spiritual life remains at least as important as it was, if not more important. Yet their participation trickles off because it is just hard [logistically].

The goal is to create replicable structures for sharing with many organizations. “It is a formula that can be replicated easily,” said Soltzberg.

For more information and a schedule of memory cafés, visit jfcsboston.org.

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