Friday, July 29, 2011

Useful Information from Dedicated Volunteers

When we first started talking about our Memory Café tour in England, Susan wrote to all the persons whose email addresses appeared on the website for Cornwall Memory Cafés. This was not because we had the particular goal of visiting Cornwall, but because a general Google search for Memory Cafés in the UK turned up the Cornwall site. The first person who replied told us about her experience with Memory Cafés and invited us to a dinner at her home where she promised to introduce us to other café volunteers. Most generously, she also invited us to stay with her and her husband at their home a few miles south of Camelford.

After a delicious dinner and wide-ranging discussion, we adjourned to the living room where we looked at pictures from café gatherings and outings taken by the two café groups these volunteers help to organize. In one town, the café regularly attracts 30-40 participants (carers and carees, as they call them) and in the other town, about 20-30 persons attend each fortnightly session.

These two Memory Cafés operate much like the others we visited (although there seems to be some variation in when the tea is served and what accompanies the tea). Each meets for two hours in the afternoon (2-4 p.m.) and each offers a variety of programs. For example, the volunteers who met for dinner work with a group called Arts for Health: Cornwall and Isles of Scilly. The brochure for this organization states its mission of “improving health and well-being through creativity” with a special focus on “supporting Memory Cafés through arts and creativity.” Six “art practitioners” offer one free session to a café with subsequent visits costing a small fee. Cafés contract with the artists individually. Here are their descriptions of their programs:

Drama: “I am a fun loving multidisciplinary Cornish artist who works the worlds of performance, visual arts, photography, music and movement. Meet my stage characters over a cup of tea and have a bit of fun!”

Walter’s Wonderfool Tea Party: “Walter invites you all to join him at his tea party, with light-hearted sociable exercises, using music, props and sensory stimuli. Fun for all.”

Arts and Craft: “My art activities often involve words and images used together. One example of this is creating memory books of sayings with small prints sitting alongside text. We can make memories and conversations visual using simple print-making techniques.”

Dance: “I am offering a dance class with style! [We saw pictures of her in a lovely red dress; café participants had a grand time that afternoon.] Combining carefully selected music, movement props and poetry, I will provide stimulating and engaging activities to exercise our bodies, share memories, and have a good old sing along.”

Singing: “I offer singing sessions which can focus on sing-a-longs of songs throughout the decades as well as traditional and original compositions. The music can be used as a reminiscence aid, combined with physical and vocal warm-ups to relax the body and condition the voice. Sessions which focus on vocal wellbeing and exploring sounds and rhythms are also available.”

Creative Writing: “I am a writer using sensory ‘touchstones’ and words to connect, reconnect and engage people with dementia (and their carers) through creative activities that work well for groups or individuals.”

These descriptions are not unlike what one finds on the website of the organization “Artists for Alzheimer’s." What’s impressive is that they live and work in one county of England and they focus on bringing their talents to Memory Café participants. The brochure of their organization boldly states: “We focus upon the act of creativity itself as a positive tool for healing and change, emphasizing the creative process itself over the end result.” Another way of saying this is a phrase we heard often from Memory Café volunteers, and have also heard in Anne Basting’s TimeSlips creative storytelling trainings: these activities are “failure free.”

Returning to the after dinner conversation with the three Memory Café volunteers, we had quite a lengthy discussion of their concerns about whether the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK would “brand” Memory Cafés. The man who acts as treasurer of the group told how the Alzheimer’s Society asked for a kind of dues contribution from the two Memory Cafés where he volunteers. When he inquired about getting a “checkbook” so he could draw on the account for activities at the cafes, he learned there was no such thing. In other words, the money would flow in one direction only. These Memory Café volunteers believe that the UK Alzheimer’s Society has shifted its focus to fund-raising for research and though they know that’s important, they choose to invest their considerable energy in serving persons living with dementia directly.

As we watched the pictures on our host’s computer, we asked many questions about their “outings” which are quite popular with all participants. (A recent study conducted in the US that asked people living with dementia what activities they missed the most found that “outings” was a popular choice.) One of their Memory Café groups had recently visited a castle in Cornwall where they were treated to a tour and a tea. They always make sure someone accompanies these outings who has had first aid training, and they do a “risk assessment” prior to an outing checking for toilet availability, distance and condition of sidewalks, etc. Money to hire the bus to take 38 carees, carers, and volunteers to the castle came from the raffles and contributions. The treasurer/bookkeeper keeps careful records of raffle donations, and in-kind contributions for tea, coffee, biscuits, and raffle prizes.

Organizationally, each Memory Café in Cornwall has an annual general meeting (like the one that preceded our visit to Camelford). At the meeting, they appoint officers (usually a Chair, Treasurer, and Secretary), give reports, and review minutes of the previous meeting. Repeatedly, they emphasized how the cafés are operated by volunteers. It’s important to note that some of these volunteers also have careers; many work with older persons in social services and healthcare.

In addition to planning and organizing café gatherings and outings, these volunteers also work hard to get notices about their activities published in local newspapers. They also put posters in churches and doctors’ offices. Clearly it takes a lot of dedicated volunteers to help a Memory Café succeed.

As the evening was winding down, our host brought out the “intake form” they use for participants. This was unlike any intake form we’ve ever seen. It’s titled “All about Me” and is obviously meant to be something a carer and caree work on together. Instead of the usual dreary questions and scales, this one features small colorful pictures for each category. Examples are birthplace, children, occupation, key family members and friends, pets, faith, daily routines, favorite sayings, significant life events, etc. The health information they emphasize concerns epilepsy and diabetes. Obviously, some of this information is to protect the safety of participants, but much is used to design programs that will appeal to them. This intake form alone was a good example of the creative passion that has gone into the two Memory Café groups these volunteers so passionately support. We felt honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to learn so much from them.

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