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

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
‘Memory cafe’ takes aim at elder isolation, dementia concerns
Dorchester residents Rachel Tate and Carl Baty greet each other at a BCYF Grove Hall Senior Center memory cafe. (Photo: 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.

Author: Sandra LarsonFederica 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.

“The health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” warned AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson, speaking at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual scientific meeting in November. Her organization is studying and tackling isolation through its “Connect2Affect” project. And eradicating social isolation is one of the 12 “Grand Challenges” identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

“Isolation is one of the things that make the disease [of dementia] grow,” said McCormack. In her work with the Alzheimer’s Initiative, she has observed how hard it can be for older adults or their partners to admit there may be a problem or even to go out in public if memory decline become evident. Memory cafés provide a place to mix with other people who may be experiencing similar issues and fears in a positive atmosphere, she said, “where the cup is half full and not half empty.”

On the web

Directory of Massachusetts Memory Cafes:

Boston Alzheimer’s Initiative: 617-635-3992

Percolator Memory Cafe Toolkit:

I’m Still Here Foundation:

AARP Foundation’s Connect 2 Affect:

Alzheimer’s Association:

The November program at Grove Hall was led by Dee Brenner, ARTZ program manager for the I’m Still Here Foundation, a Woburn-based organization that develops and delivers inclusive programming for audiences with cognitive challenges.

Before and after each video clip, Brenner offered a little food for thought about the clip’s theme or performers. Avoiding yes-or-no questions or anything that might feel like a quiz, her method drew out attendees’ recollections and feelings.

“Rarely does a clip not spur some kind of dialogue,” said Brenner. “It’s not just ‘Oh, Casablanca, what a wonderful film.’”

Conversations at this café ranged from recollections of train travel and roller skate keys to the prospect of Mars exploration to frustration at today’s divisive political climate.

As attendees said their goodbyes, Federica Solomon lingered, a crochet project in-progress on her lap. She took up the craft recently through a class at the Grove Hall Senior Center and is working on a hat and scarf. The 81-year-old Dorchester resident takes art and computer classes there as well.

“I try to keep my mind working,” she said. “I don’t want my brain to sleep on me.”

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.