Memory Café Basics (5)

  • About a year ago "Aroma de Cafe" was launched, the first Spanish-speaking memory cafe in Massachusetts. It is held in the city of Lawrence, in a predominantly Latino community. The room is decorated with real palm trees, pictures of coffee and cocoa fields. Traditional foods are served, and period style music plays softly in the background. The coordinators named the cafe after the scent of brewing coffee, which is evocative for most of their guests, who come from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

    In order to encourage and support the development of more Spanish-speaking cafes, we translated our free Memory Café Toolkit into Spanish. It includes a description of Aroma de Cafe written by the cafe coordinators, along with step-by-step instructions for starting a memory cafe, sample budgets, and templates that can be adapted for the use of a new cafe. It is now available at The English version of the toolkit is at

    Please share this link with any Spanish speakers who might be interested in starting a café or simply learning more about the memory café movement. Together we can help share this model so that more and more people can benefit. 


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  • Memory Café Environments

    There is a growing literature and practice around trying to make care environments and communities more age and dementia friendly. Can any of this information help us create more accessible and inviting memory café environments? And, for those who are starting up a new café, what are the important features to think about when choosing a location and setting up the venue for the first time?

    Emi Kiyota, an environmental gerontologist, and architect by training, has counseled organizations across the globe on very specific aspects of the environment that impact elder accessibility, comfort, and safety, but also, importantly, on how to create “a place where you can feel like yourself.” Kiyota emphasizes the need for creating environments that promote respect and dignity and provide opportunity for reciprocity. The principles behind her philosophy are outlined below and you can also read more about her international Ibasho Cafés here.

    Relating this to the memory café venue we can ask: Are our café members routinely given a chance to share their talents with the community or give back in a meaningful way? How can we value an individual’s full history and experiences? She also recommends that elders help create their physical environments. What mechanisms are in place to gather input from your community on the memory café environment?

    Age/dementia-friendly features

    Turning now to the more physical aspects of the environment, Kiyota gives several recommendations that will improve accessibility and comfort for older adults. For example, normal aging is associated with changes in the visual system that can make it difficult to distinguish between different shades of one color or pastel colors. Brighter contrasting colors can be used to highlight important features of a room or used on signs (on the topic of signs, simple, large font, posted at eye level, is the way to go). Particularly relevant to people with memory loss, avoid dark colors on the floor (e.g. a dark gray floor mat) because dark areas can be misinterpreted as a hole or step. Having flooring that is in good repair is a must, and using plain, non-reflective surfaces can also reduce agitation. 

    Lighting is an important issue as well. Try to keep lighting consistent, avoiding pockets of bright light and dim light, because it takes longer for aging eyes to adjust to changes in light, which can be disorienting. Take advantage of natural light, where possible, because it can have a calming effect.

    In terms of mobility, choosing a building with entrance and exit ways that do not require elevators/stairs is optimal. But if unavoidable, consider adding bright tape with a sandpaper-finish to the stairs and adequate lighting to the area.  It is also helpful to have handrails next to stairs and in corridors and to provide chairs with armrests to make it easy for guests to get in and out of their seats.

    Many of these recommendations are echoed in a chapter entitled “Dementia and the Environment” from At Home with Dementia, a helpful resource produced by Alzheimer’s Australia NSW. Additional suggestions they provide specifically for older adults with memory loss include the following:

    • Use of contrasting colors on floor vs. walls, doors vs. walls, furniture vs. walls/floors and even dishes vs. table surface, can help with orientation.
    • Avoid patterns on dishes and tablecloths (patterns can be misinterpreted as objects).
    • Place stickers or tape on sliding glass doors or floor-to-ceiling windows to improve visualization of glass.
    • Avoid furniture with sharp edges if possible (even in the early stages of memory loss, people can have difficulty judging furniture position).
    • Display a large clock, and the day, date and memory café name to help with orientation.

    Location considerations

    If your group is in the process of choosing a location, Sue McDermott, Cornwall’s Memory Café Network Facilitator (UK), provides the following suggestions:  

    • Choose a space that can be rented on an ongoing basis and is available for a short period before and after the scheduled memory café meeting to allow for set up/clean up and volunteer discussion time.
    • It is best to have space for tables and chairs that will accommodate about 30 people, including room for wheelchairs and moving about without blocking fire exits. Standard height tables and chairs that are comfortable and portable are recommended, and arranging tables so that guests are not back-to-back as much as possible will encourage interaction. 
    • Try to avoid venues with noisy echoes. 
    • Give preference to a location that is accessible by public transport.
    • A location with adequate, free parking is a plus.
    • Look for a building that is disabled/wheelchair accessible, including restrooms that are preferably on the same level as the meeting area.
    • Does the room have adequate heat and air-conditioning systems?
    • Make sure the entrance and exit points are visible from the main meeting area so that guests are always visible and not able to wander unseen.
    • Having a storage space is ideal so that volunteers do not have to tote large resource boxes to each event. 
    • Access to a spare room is also useful for separate activities or a private discussion.  

    Of course, memory cafés are typically low-budget, volunteer-run events, and groups rely on the generosity of their communities to provide spaces for these gatherings. As a result, location preference and substantial building modifications may not be possible or practical. But it can still be helpful to know what the recommendations are and perhaps, as a group, we can come up with some creative ways to weave them into whatever environment we are working with.

    Does anyone have suggestions or easy implementation tips? Please consider sharing them in a comment, community blog post, or a Tip submission.

    Additional Reading:


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  • Outreach

    One of the most difficult aspects of starting a memory café can be getting the word out to the people who would benefit most from social connection—those who have become isolated from their communities and those who have other significant barriers to connection such as cultural differences or being a non-native speaker.

    What is the best way to reach these individuals?

    I am hearing from café organizers that outreach needs to be an active and ongoing process. When the café is just starting up, have the expectation that attendance may be low for several months, and try to persevere! Several organizers have said that a good local newspaper article about their memory café has been one of the most successful ways to reach people in need.  Word of mouth also appears to be key to these grassroots driven programs. In addition, establishing personal connections with other community-based organizations or local leaders can help cultivate trust and lend credibility to the new café.

    Below is a more specific list of the types of organizations to contact in your community with information about your memory café [This list is a compilation of ideas from Carole Larkin’s Memory Café Toolkit, a Cornwall UK guidance on setting up a memory café by Sue McDermott, and my own research]:

    • Regional or neighborhood newspapers
    • Local radio or TV stations
    • Community centers
    • Senior centers
    • Religious centers
    • Adult day programs
    • Dementia support groups
    • Caregiver advocacy groups
    • YMCAs with programs for older adults
    • Public libraries
    • Rotary clubs
    • Meals On Wheels
    • Other volunteer organizations
    • Local Village movement
    • Independent living or assisted living facilities
    • Senior interest groups
    • Area Agency on Aging
    • Local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association
    • Geriatric care managers and social workers
    • Community health centers
    • Neurologists who diagnose and treat dementia
    • Family physicians
    • Memory clinics
    • Online calendar services (e.g. local Alzheimer’s Association Calendar, Craigslist Activities Board)
    • Any other organizations in your area connected to older adults

    The question of how to reach ethnically or culturally diverse populations and overcome language barriers is more complex. In addition to outreach strategies, the program itself will need to have a level of cultural competency that encourages attendance over the long term.

    A very helpful resource in this regard is the book entitled Ethnicity and the Dementias, Edited by Gwen Yeo and Dolores Gallagher-Thompson. In the chapter on outreach they summarize lessons learned from two decades of research addressing how community-based organizations can more effectively reach people dealing with memory loss in ethnically diverse communities. Below is an abridged summary:

    1.     Recruit bilingual and bicultural staff/volunteers for outreach and program delivery
    2.     Provide ongoing diversity training at all levels of the organization
    3.     Utilize linguistically and culturally appropriate tools and materials
    4.     Understand cultural attitudes, beliefs, and values about dementia
    5.     Launch a media campaign (using appropriate language and ethnic media)
    6.     Identify potential community partners
    7.     Offer in-service training and community orientations (for staff and community education)
    8.     Build dementia care capacity with key providers (established, trusted, interested collaborators)
    9.     Involve the community
    10.   Deliver on the promise to serve

    [Edgerly, E. S., & Sullivan, T. (2006). Reaching Diverse Caregiving Families Through Community Partnerships. In G. Yeo & D. Gallagher-Thompson (Eds.), Ethnicity and the Dementias (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.]

    Because memory cafés are low-budget, often volunteer-run organizations, these recommendations may need to be adapted somewhat. For example, instead of a formal in-service training, one option would be to invite someone from the community who is knowledgeable about specific ethnic perceptions of dementia to speak with volunteers for 30 minutes following a scheduled memory café gathering.

    Successful outreach clearly involves awareness, partnership, creativity and persistence. Do you have an outreach success story or need advice on this issue? Please share your insights/questions by adding a comment below or starting a thread in the discussion forum.




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  • 1. Provide opportunity for regular social engagement

    2. Create an environment that is relaxed and free of judgment

    3. Allow people to experience a sense of normalcy

    4. Inspire new friendships and peer support

    5. Provide a break from normal routines

    6. Low cost, high benefit

    7. Bring music, art and other entertainment within reach

    8. Offer connection to other community-based support mechanisms

    9. Raise awareness about stigma and isolation

    10. Can be a first step towards creating a ‘Dementia Friendly’ community

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  • Why Memory Cafés?

    Over the past two decades, community-based programs for people with memory loss and their caregivers have proliferated in the US in an attempt to alleviate the very difficult day-to-day psychological and social challenges associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.  Research indicates, however, that many of the common support group and daycare services now available are underutilized and that people with memory loss and caregivers living in the community continue to suffer profoundly from isolation and lack of support.

    The ultimate goal is to reduce the stigma associated with these diseases. And while a shift in attitude appears to be underway, the process is slow, and people need tangible help now. As a first step forward, one option is to help neighborhoods form supportive social groups that offer a safe haven from stigma and an opportunity for people with memory loss and their caregivers to receive peer support, together, in a nonjudgmental environment. In addition to providing social engagement and a support network, neighborhood community gatherings have the potential to provide caregivers with a brief respite from their normal caregiving routine and another opportunity to receive information about community resources and services available in their area.

    In 1997, such a neighborhood-based community program was developed in Holland, and similar programs have proliferated over the past 15 years, particularly in Great Britain and Australia. The memory café (also called “Alzheimer’s café”) was originally described by Dutch psychologist and founder Dr. Bère Miesen as “an informal way for patients to make contact with each other, to receive a consultation, and to feel at home.”

    In their current form, memory cafés are social events that occur monthly or bimonthly for a few hours in locations such as neighborhood community centers, church meeting halls and existing cafés. As the name indicates, coffee, tea and light snacks are provided and efforts are made to keep the atmosphere casual. The programmatic structure can vary, but the most important elements, according to many memory café participants, are the social nature of the gatherings and the fact that caregivers and care receivers can attend together, with no distinction made between those who have memory loss and those who do not.  These programs are gaining momentum in the US, with about 60 new cafés now in operation.

    Please join us!

    Are you interested in developing one of these programs in your community? Or are you already involved with a memory café and looking for additional ideas, news and related research? Please join us on this journey to inspire expansion of the memory café movement! We welcome your input, comments and feedback.

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