"Memory Cafes" offer support for people with memory loss and their caregivers

Len Dewaelsche says "some things were taken away" from his wife, Sharon Dewaelsche, after her second open heart surgery resulted in brain damage and memory loss. Sharon no longer drives and she's lost her interest in cooking and some of the other hobbies she had pre-surgery.


However, the Belleville couple have found support and strength in the We Care Connect Memory Cafe, a monthly support group at the Ypsilanti Senior Center for people with dementia and their caregivers. Sharon Dewaelsche enjoys the sense of camaraderie the events provide.


"Not being able to drive has made a big difference in our lives," she says. "(Memory Cafe) is a place for me to meet people who have the same problems I do with memory loss. Everybody is really nice, and we have things in common, so I feel (comfortable) talking about it."

Sharon (in black) and Len Dewaelsche (in blue).

The Memory Cafe takes place from 2-4 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at the senior center, 1015 N. Congress St. in Ypsilanti. Around 20 people usually attend. The first 15 minutes allow participants to put on name tags, grab snacks, and settle in. Next up are announcements, followed by a "getting to know you session" that's run a little like a speed dating event to give each participant a chance to interact with someone other than the person with whom they came.

Memory Cafe at the Ypsilanti Senior Center.

Senior center director Monica Prince says the center hosted a series of talks in early 2018 about the signs of dementia and how to tell the difference between normal aging and medically-diagnosed dementia. The talks spurred several senior center members to confess to Prince that they'd noticed signs of dementia in their spouses but they didn't know what to do about it.


"We started looking at things we could do and saw this model of the memory cafe," Prince says.

Monica Prince.

That model originated in the Netherlands in 1997 and has since become popular in other countries including the U.S. Prince and the center's administrative assistant, Shonda Gibbs, wrote a grant proposal and were awarded enough funds through an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant program for seniors to run the program for three years. Prince calls the first year of the program, which kicked off in September, "the building year" when organizers will get the word out and shape the program to local participants' needs.

Prince says she chose the memory cafe model because it emphasized not just practical resources and emotional support, but also social interaction.


"That is one of the major things that frustrates both caregivers and people with dementia," she says.


As people develop dementia, they often realize they're not remembering things and become uncomfortable with the idea of doing simple things like going out to lunch and trying to decide what to order off the menu.


"With caregivers, it's really exhausting to have to make all the decisions and make sure nothing offensive is going on or making people around them wonder what is going on with (the partner who has dementia)," Prince says.

CarolynRose Stone speaks at Memory Cafe.

The memory cafe model allows both the person with dementia and the caregiver to relax, knowing they are with other people who understand their situation. That was the case for one caregiver and Memory Cafe attendee whose husband was exhibiting a new behavior she thought was related to his dementia.


During a recent Memory Cafe, she asked for feedback to help her better understand the new behavior. Several participants and organizers all suggested that the woman try another local support group for caregivers, but it took place at night, when the woman didn't like to drive.


Participants suggested the woman ask one of her adult children to take her husband out to dinner and drop the woman off at the support group on the way. That way, the adult child would have quality time with the father and have a chance to observe the new behavior the caregiver was noticing, while the caregiver could get a little reprieve from caretaking.


"She started doing that, and it's just changed her mentality," Prince says. "She's much calmer about things now and she started understanding better what was going on with her husband."


Those insights and creative suggestions often can only come from other people living daily with dementia and memory loss, and that kind of support is one of the big benefits of the memory cafe model.


Gibbs says the thing she has loved best about helping to facilitate the Memory Cafe is seeing participants talking to each other even before the official programming begins.


"Caregivers have a chance to build peer relationships, and it's a safe environment for you and your loved one to step out for a couple hours, enjoy refreshments, get to know each other, and laugh," Gibbs says. "It's important to provide a safe place to have a respite together and talk to other individuals on the same journey."

Shonda Gibbs.

Organizers frequently check in with participants to see if there are activities or topics they are especially interested in. Past activities or talks have included playing with musical instruments, learning exercises for improving the mind-body connection, and an arts and crafts project. Future sessions will include relaxation exercises and a talk about legal issues that caregivers of people with dementia face.


Traveling with someone who has dementia can be complicated, and participants recently requested information on that topic. In response, the main program at the April 9 Memory Cafe was a livestream presentation by Kathy Shoaf of Elite Cruises and Vacations, a travel agency that specializes in supportive cruises and vacation experiences for people with dementia or other health issues and their caregivers.


Len Dewaelsche says that after all his wife has lost, the Memory Cafe is one way to add something new and positive to her life. He feels it's important to attend the Memory Cafe regularly and support her.

Sharon and Len Dewaelsche.

"I don't want her to fall by the wayside, and she needs to feel like she still has some worth, to be social and communicate with everybody," he says. "It's beneficial for me as well. If she's sad, I'm sad. If she's happy, I'm happy. If she's doing well, I'm doing well. Whatever I can do to help her through these times."


More information about the Memory Cafe is available by calling (734) 483-5014 or visiting www.ypsiseniorcenter.org. Additional resources for caregivers are available through a memory care support group from 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month at The Gilbert Residence, 203 S. Huron St. in Ypsilanti. For more details, email Debi Lowry at debilowry@comcast.net.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by David Lewinski.

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