Living with memory loss can be isolating for older adults experiencing it and their caregivers—especially when friends and family who don’t quite understand the gravity of the situation start to pull away.
Connecting with other people in the same situation can help care recipients and their caregivers feel understood and less alone. Each month at memory cafes sponsored by the Library Memory Project – a program of the Bridges Library System in Waukesha, Wisconsin – those types of important connections take place.
Memory cafes feature lively discussions and engaging activities centered around a particular theme. The uplifting social gatherings help individuals with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia – and their caregivers – combat social isolation by introducing them to others on the same journey and connecting them to services through partner agencies like the Aging and Disability Resource Centers in Jefferson and Waukesha counties.
“The goal is to offer something special for people who are living with memory loss and their care partners, so they feel safe and welcome, and they know that they are understood,” said Angela Meyers, coordinator of youth and inclusive services at the Library Memory Project. “We want to help get people out of their houses and connect with other people to break down social isolation.”
Memory cafes are offered six times a month at different locations—21 of the 24 libraries in the Bridges system and community service organizations rotate hosting. More than 200 unduplicated people participate in memory cafes annually. They usually learn about the program from the Alzheimer’s Association, ADRC or their doctors.
Each 90-minute memory cafe begins with a simple round of introductions and an ice breaker to get the conversation going.
“If it’s a winter-themed memory cafe, we might ask, ‘What is your favorite winter sport or what do you like most about winter?’” Meyers said. “And then we will go around the room and people will answer. They might say, ‘I love watching figure skating or I used to figure skate’ and it starts the conversation among people: They might ask, ‘Where did you figure skate?’ or ‘I always skated at a local pond, or my dad made us an ice rink in our backyard.’ It helps build connections between people.”
Library staff members then go through the program, leave time for mingling and close the event with a song or poem.
In honor of the upcoming Academy Awards, the first memory cafe in February will be Oscars-themed. Participants will meet on the “red carpet” at a local library to discuss their favorite movies and stars, compete for prizes playing Oscar-themed bingo and enjoy classic movie theater snacks. The following week, they’ll have a chance to “step right up” and guess the cost of certain household goods throughout the decades – like a bar of Ivory Soap in 1960 – as they compete for prizes playing “The Price is Right.”
“We’ve learned if it’s something from their past, it will come easier to them than if we ask them what the price is today,” Meyers explained.
The remaining February memory cafes include a sweetheart-themed gathering to discuss favorite Valentine’s Day memories and decorate heart-shaped cookies; bingo games with prizes; a chocolate tasting; and a ball exercise class.
Meyers has seen participants return month after month, year after year, make new friends and seek advice from the agency partners in attendance about how to connect to more services as the needs of their care recipients change.
“We’re excited to offer something to bring people into our library and know that it’s meaningful to them,” she said. “It’s also very meaningful to our library staff—the ones facilitating the memory cafes. We often say we get as much out of the memory cafes as our participants do.”
When Meyers saw a call for nominations for the 2022 Innovation in Alzheimer’s Caregiving Awards in the Bader Philanthropies newsletter, she immediately thought of the program and applied.
“We’re doing something innovative; it’s not often you hear of libraries collaborating on projects like this,” she said.
Meyers was excited to answer one of the differentiating questions, “Is the program replicable?” with a resounding yes.
“I have done a number of presentations on this set up for different libraries, to help them see that they can offer something like this by partnering with other libraries and other organizations,” she said.
Much to her delight, the Library Memory Project is among three organizations nationwide to win a 2022 Innovation in Alzheimer’s Caregiving Award from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, Bader Philanthropies Inc. and Family Caregiver Alliance. The award comes with a $20,000 prize.
“It’s really an honor to be recognized for the work we’ve been doing since 2015,” she said. “I’m so happy to share the award with the libraries working on the Memory Project.”
Now, the team is in the process of working on a strategic plan for the program they hope informs how the prize money will be used.
Memory cafes operate across the country. To find one in your state, visit Memory Cafe Directory – Dementia-Friendly Outings for All!