Friday, July 29, 2011

“Memory Café Meets Here Today”

The sign outside the Baptist church on a hill leading down to the port of Falmouth announced the memory café. We arrived about a half hour early, in time to help the volunteers set up tables and chairs in a large room conveniently located by the kitchen. This bright room has many windows and importantly, a cupboard where volunteers can store some of their café supplies.

In England, Rotarians have organized a group called “REPoD” which stands for “Rotarians Easing Problems of Dementia.” About a year before our trip, we discovered that REPoD published an online pamphlet giving much useful information about setting up a Memory Café. Several retired men belonging to Rotary volunteer at the Falmouth café, along with a number of women, including the wife of one Rotarian who’s active in her local Lions Club. (The two of them later treated us to a delicious dinner at a classic pub.) These people were bustling about preparing for the arrival of participants.

Participants seemed eager to tell us about why they came to the café. One woman had taken three buses to get to Falmouth (and was grateful when someone offered her a ride home after the café ended). Another couple was there for the first time; the wife’s mom usually lives with her other daughter in another part of the country, but the couple was giving her a two week respite time and thought it would be a good idea to try coming to Memory Café. The mom seemed to enjoy herself and settled into the rhythm of the afternoon. This was the first café where we observed adult children present with parents.

One woman was recently widowed when her husband finally succumbed to a long-standing diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease but, though nearly blind, she busily moved about helping other participants with the main activity of the day which was the creation and decoration of memory boxes. (Interestingly, at the cafés we visited, people referred far more often to dementia or “memory problems” than to Alzheimer’s disease.) Another woman came with her little dog who settled in contentedly beneath one of the tables.

Amazing to us was the participation of a local geriatric psychiatrist who treats many of the persons with dementia who come to the café. She was there with her son who’s about 8 years old and while she doesn’t come to all café gatherings, many participants seemed to know her. She had trained the volunteers, giving them information about forms and symptoms of dementia.

In all, there were about 35 people in that church social hall; as with all the cafés we visited, it was often hard to differentiate carers, carees, and volunteers. This “softening of categories” is central to the Memory Café experience: labels are erased and everyone together simply enjoys an afternoon of socializing and fun. Here’s what the Falmouth Memory Café’s brochure says about this: “You will have gathered that everyone is very friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. We are all equal and are treated as such. We respect each other’s abilities; at the same time we offer each other any help that may be needed from time to time with empathy and understanding. We usually have one or more professionals from the health care service on hand if a confidential chat is needed.”

When participants enter the room, they pass by Joan’s table. Joan has problems with her feet so can’t move around a lot, but she has the important role of giving out name tags (on lanyards) and making a list of participants’ first names. She said they tried name tags with safety pins but they were too hard to manipulate for some participants. Joan also keeps track of the notecards that record participants’ names, names of persons to contact in case of emergency, and health information.

The lotteries and a bit of fund-raising enabled the volunteer leaders of the café to purchase games, puzzles, and “sticky darts.” They had borrowed “sticky darts” for an earlier gathering and it had been such a hit that they decided to use some of their limited funds to purchase their own “sticky darts.” This is a large padded circle, larger than the usual dartboard, which hangs over a door; it has Velcro patches representing different point values, and people throw tennis-balls with Velcro at them. This was especially fun for several of the men who got into a rousing “sticky dart” competition for points. A first-time attendee, a man with very advanced vascular dementia, took great pride in being the day’s “champion.”

The energetic volunteer “activities lady” (the member of the Lions Club who later hosted us at the pub) had a veritable three-ring circus going at times. People could engage in a variety of activities, including word searches, making the memory boxes, and answering quiz questions. Every now and then, she’d ring a bell to get people’s attention. She maintains several notebooks constantly replenished with potential activities for the group to enjoy, and is always ready to fill in a lull of even a few minutes. By 2:30 everyone had assembled and she announced it was time for the “welcoming song.” At 3:00, the tea was ready. This café serves “egg and cress sandwiches” (the choice of sandwiches, like many other components of the café, was “democratically chosen”), cakes, coffee, and of course, tea. Around 4:00, the café closed with a departing song.

The spirit of fun and friendship pervades the two hour gathering. The volunteers move around, helping if needed, serving the tea (using real cups and plates), and stopping to chat with various participants. Joan told one story that exemplifies the gentle, welcoming spirit of the Memory Café. Several months ago, a woman brought her husband. He came to the door, heard the chatter in the room, saw all the people at the tables and turned around and said he didn’t want to come. Joan told his wife to go and sit by the door until he felt ready to come in. They did that and in about 15 minutes, they returned. They’ve been coming ever since.

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