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‘Memory cafe’ takes aim at elder isolation, dementia concerns

Sandra Larson | 1/18/2017, 11:55 a.m.
Memory cafes are new to Boston, but the model was developed in the 1990s in Holland, and over the past ...
Dorchester residents Rachel Tate and Carl Baty greet each other at a BCYF Grove Hall Senior Center memory cafe. Photo by Sandra Larson

On a drizzly November day, the Boston Center for Youth and Families Grove Hall Senior Center offered a warm and lively gathering place for area seniors.

Seated around long tables or still dishing up plates of salad, chicken, fruit and home-baked blueberry cobbler, about 20 elders — some accompanied by caregivers, some on their own, some chatty, others silent — were greeted cheerily by staff members of the senior center and the city’s Boston Alzheimer’s Initiative.

Federica Solomon of Dorchester attends a memory café event at BCYF Grove Hall Senior Center; Solomon also takes computer classes at the center.

Federica Solomon of Dorchester attends a memory café event at BCYF Grove Hall Senior Center; Solomon also takes computer classes at the center.

A program of short video clips began. The seniors chuckled at the predicament of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguised as women chorus members in “Some Like It Hot.” They marveled at footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon and at the virtuosic tap dancing of the Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” A slide show of Americana accompanied by Paul Robeson’s deep voice singing “The House I Live In” brought wistful nods.

The monthly lunchtime gathering is one of a growing number of “memory cafés” across Massachusetts and the U.S. that aim to provide a safe, respectful, enjoyable and social respite for people experiencing dementia or anyone concerned about potential memory decline.

“I want to keep my mind,” said Four Corners resident Dora Vaughan, a first-time memory cafe guest. “I see other people gone already.”

Carl Baty, 64, is a former air traffic controller from Philadelphia who moved to Dorchester when he met his wife, Arnetta, a few years ago. Besides attending memory cafe events, he volunteers with the city’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Friends of the Codman Square Library and other organizations.

“It’s good to stay active,” said Baty, looking sharp in a crisp suit and tie. “It’s good to stay connected.”

Memory cafés are new to Boston, but the model was developed in the 1990s in Holland, and over the past decade has spread across the U.S. The first Massachusetts café started in 2011 in Marlborough, and now there are “50 and counting” statewide, according to Beth Soltzberg, director of the Alzheimer’s/Related Disorders Family Support Program at Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Waltham. The first Spanish-language café opened recently in Lawrence.

In 2014 Soltzberg formed the “Percolator,” a network offering support and training for Massachusetts memory café organizers, including a toolkit for starting café programs and a statewide café directory.

In some areas they are called “Alzheimer’s cafés,” but memory cafes are not Alzheimer’s education sessions or support groups. A 2005 evaluation of memory cafés in the United Kingdom observed that the café setting provides “a safe space in which to ‘re-story’ the experience of dementia.” Organizers say café participation can open a path to starting difficult conversations about dementia.

“The point is to diffuse fears and the idea that you’re being judged and evaluated,” said Patricia McCormack, director of the Boston Alzheimer’s Initiative of the city’s Elderly Commission and a major force behind the Grove Hall cafe. “It’s people from your community, meeting in your community, to be of assistance to each other.”

Typically community-based and reflective of neighborhood culture, memory cafés can play a key role in combatting elder isolation, which the AARP Foundation has termed a health risk as well as a social issue.