Visiting a memory café
Forget about high street coffee shops—a memory café is the place to be! In a memory café, it’s not just about the buzz of caffeine; it's more about the positive buzz in general. After all, where else could you get enthralling speakers, word games and activities that have everyone—attendees, leaders and volunteers—splitting their sides with laughter?
Memory cafés are riotously good fun, and if things don’t always start on time, it’s only because the good company and plentiful snacks seem to be much more important.
What is a memory café?
There is a good chance you haven’t heard of this hip concept, even though some cafés have been serving satisfied customers for many years. Gatherings can take place in community centres, residential homes, synagogues, churches and even museums and lecture halls.
Just like your favourite local coffee shop, memory cafés are warm, welcoming places to meet new people and generally have a good time. But in particular, what makes these places so special is their clientele.
These regularly held social gatherings are increasingly popular for those with memory loss or dementia. This means that for someone who is frequently forgetful, a memory café can be a safe place to relieve restlessness, anxiety or mood swings. It is unimportant whether the source of forgetfulness is age, medical treatment or another physical condition. You don’t need a formal diagnosis if you want to attend.
A memory café can also provide an interesting shared experience between a person with memory loss and members of their support network. Many of the programmes are specially designed for two people to enjoy. They're not just drop off facilities.
And if a carer or companion is looking for somewhere to relax, a memory café can offer a place to breathe and relax. It's also a place to get advice and support from other family carers, volunteers or the professionals on site.
Café organisers take great pride in their edible offerings, which means everyone can enjoy a full plate of food and experience that warm feeling of being treated like someone special.
So along with good company, memory cafés also offer the temptation of tasty treats—and plenty of them! At some cafés, the kosher goodies are huge, and the tea and coffee are just like your Bubbie's finest!
Why memory cafés work
If everything sounds good so far but you still aren't ready join, that's normal. You may be unsure about going somewhere that is specifically designed for people with memory issues.
But in a memory café, the goal is to make you feel comfortable. Whatever happens in a memory café is completely confidential.
To put things into perspective, consider the following real-life example:
Before joining a memory café, one partner (we’ll call her Gaby, although that isn’t her real name) said she often felt intensely embarrassed by many things her husband would say or do, often in public. She knew he couldn’t help it, but she felt very self-conscious. If anything, her husband’s diagnosis made her feel even more ashamed. As a result, she would avoid social contact.
Although Gaby was aware she and her husband had fewer friends and were becoming isolated, she felt unable to do anything about it. She felt increasingly low and did not know what would help her break this cycle.
Recognising the situation, Gaby's GP told her about memory cafés; Gaby took a deep breath and planned a visit. That was two years ago, and Gaby hasn’t looked back.
As one of many couples at the café, Gaby and her husband experience this positive feeling of normality—both inside and out of the café. Her husband is stable and calm, and Gaby no longer feels awkward, isolated or stigmatised. For Gaby, this has given her a feeling of empowerment, dignity and renewed self-esteem.
Top 10 benefits of a memory café
Here is a list of reasons to help you decide whether or not a memory café is worth exploring.
- New friends. For many couples, making new friends at a memory café may be very important. One partner can often spend long periods alone at home, and going to a café can be a great opportunity to get out and meet other people. In some instances, couples might attend cafés together over long periods of time and develop strong relationships; some may even socialise outside of the café.
- Support. It can be exhausting to be the only one running the household, particularly when this can entail everything from dressing your partner, to doing the food shopping, to paying all the bills, to being a constant source of reassurance. Emotional and physical strain can be a real challenge, and these feelings are very common. In some cases, you may find it helpful to speak with other carers or volunteers who know what the experience feels like.
- Excitement. You and your partner may look forward to café days. Your partner may also be more tranquil leading up to the meetings—and afterwards as well.
- Confidence. Even if your partner has been shy about speaking (for whatever reason), this may not be the case—at least during the meetings. Many partners comment that for two hours every few weeks they miraculously have back some part of the confident person they once knew.
- Interaction. This can come in many forms. Although you and your partner may particularly like joining in with the chit-chat, showing off photos of the grandchildren and discussing holiday trips, that is likely to be only part of what goes on. Many cafés are known for their high quality discussions. The organisers usually put a great deal of time and thought into planning these events, which are held several times a year.
- Activities. In addition to the discussions, many memory café programmes include reminiscence activities, artistic outlets and musical exercises—anything that encourages enjoyable engagement. Reminiscing over common items like kitchen scales, a letter, a shoe or some other item of significance can be both soothing and stimulating. Painting, reciting poetry or writing short stories may reveal hopes and release frustrations. Listening to music can spark positive memories and inspire singing and clapping. All these activities are just as serious as they are fun, since they are known to stimulate areas of the brain untouched by illness. You may be delighted to see your partner engaged in a way you thought would never happen again.
- Pets. If you like pets, accredited cats and dogs are allowed on site as people with memory issues respond particularly well to domesticated animals. However, if allergies are a problem, organisers can ensure that pets are kept away.
- Information. Many cafés have a social worker, nurse or medical practitioner available on site. If you seek information about possible therapies or treatment, or if you have any other questions, this is a good place to seek advice. GPs attending memory cafés cannot diagnose conditions, but they can help support referrals. Therefore, many people regard memory cafés as resources where they can create their own tool kit of contacts and information.
- Safety. Memory cafés take safety very seriously, and volunteers are on hand for people who have mobility issues. (Just to give you an idea of staffing numbers, there may be as many as six volunteers to host nine couples.) Cafés are also wheelchair accessible.
- Informal. Can’t stay long? Don’t worry. There is no pressure to stay. Just like all high street cafés, you are free to come and go as you please. There is no need to sign up to anything.
Finding a memory café near you
Memory cafés are springing up everywhere, even if they sometimes go by other names. There are cafés dotted around all over the country. There may well be one close to where you live.
The Alzheimer's Society's Dementia Connect directory allows you to search by post code or service provided. Please note, this service only covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For Scotland, please use the Alzheimer Scotland search tool.
In Judaism, there is a lot of talk about Chai. We even spend a large part of our lives saying “L’Chaim”! But that is because we believe in life and in getting the very most out of it.
If you and your partner want to see how socialising, listening to great speakers and participating in gentle activities in a relaxed setting can help you get the very most out of your lives, then pay a visit to your local memory café. You may well find it very rewarding. To explore other activities, visit Memory loss and dementia: out and about for more ideas.