Engaging activities at the Memory Café

Fox Valley in the spotlight:

This post was slated to be about memory café activities. But through conversation and investigation, I quickly came to the point that what is done at the café is probably less important than how it is done.

Some cafés opt to have a pre-planned format with specific events scheduled, some are purely social, and many are somewhere in between—having occasional guest speakers, music, art, or other projects offered.

Whatever the level of structure, the key to successful café events, according to organizer John McFadden of the Fox Valley Memory Project in Wisconsin, is engagement.

I interviewed John for this post because the Fox Valley memory cafés in Wisconsin have been very successful (eight cafés up and running with good attendance in less than one year) and their approach includes regularly scheduled events at each café.  

John says some people are choosing which café to attend based on proximity or the social connections they have made, but others are choosing based on their interest in the specific events scheduled. “We have one couple who never misses a café that has a music event planned,” he says.

But John emphasizes that they are trying to avoid “activities” that rely purely on performance or entertainment, which tend to provide a passive experience for the people attending. “Our goal is engagement,” he says.

Social engagement has been defined as a social group’s participation in activities. Interaction, exchange, and not forcing participation, are key components.

But how do we cultivate engagement, exactly?

As you can see from the below café event announcements in the Fox Valley Memory Project newsletter, the active participation component for each event is planned out in advance:

“Take me out to the ball Game! Come experience seventh inning stretch activities, baseball trivia and share your greatest baseball memory. We’ll have refreshment, door prizes and great conversation!”

“Guess the Object! We’ll be sharing a collection of useful items- some old, some new. The challenge will be guessing what they were used for. Do you have any unique items to bring from home that might stump our group?”

“Sparking Memories with Poetry! Classic poems will take us on a reminiscing and sometimes humorous journey. FUN is at the heart of this program led by Valley VNA. In fact, we may even create our own poem of the day!”

With respect to activity choice, John cites Ann Basting (who developed TimeSlips) on games to avoid: those with letters and numbers and those that are fast-paced. But again he says that even the best intentions can go awry if the engagement component is missing from the plan. For example, several occupational therapy students recently created an interactive game for a Fox Valley memory café, which was supposed to get people talking about their life experiences. But because the focus was on the technical parts of the game and not on how to elicit engagement, the game only lasted a few minutes and did not garner active participation. The engagement plan had not been sorted out beforehand.

Another way to cultivate engagement is to listen carefully to your community and find out how you can support their ideas for activities. In Fox Valley, they have brainstorming sessions with café members to come up with future activities, and, they follow through. A group of gentlemen attending a memory café recently decided they wanted to get together and do something to give back to their community. Café organizers supported their initiative, and now this group gets together regularly to do woodwork—making birdhouses and selling them in town. The group has decided to give their profits to the Fox Valley Memory Project.

This last example reminded me of some advice from Teepa Snow, occupational therapist and renowned dementia care expert: many people find “working” leisure activities more engaging and rewarding. Including such opportunities at the café also fits very well with Emi Kiyota’s emphasis on providing opportunities for older adults to give back to their communities.

Finally, the memory café environment itself can help with engagement by providing a space where people feel a sense of belonging and acceptance that allows them to be themselves in a social setting. 

John related this story about a couple who rediscovered their love of ballroom dancing at a recent memory café:

A dance floor was set up after a musical event to get people moving and participating in the music. This particular café had an engaging volunteer who had been a music broadcaster in an earlier era. The tone of his voice and manner of speaking put everyone at ease and really took them back in time. It turned out that a couple attending the café had been avid ballroom dancers in the past, but the husband’s memory loss had brought an end to this very important activity in their lives. His wife was still encouraging though, and prompted him many times to come out and dance during the event. He did not seem interested at first, but then finally, at the second-to-last song of the afternoon, he decided to come out onto the dance floor. To everyone’s amazement, this couple danced up a storm—his ability was still there! His wife had tears of joy streaming down her face as they danced. She was so grateful to experience connection with her husband in this way again—they had not danced together in six years!


What is your experience with engaging activities? Please consider sharing your thoughts here.  This kind of information can be especially useful for people who are just getting a café off the ground.


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