In the US, fewer than 20% of dementia caregivers use respite services. In fact, the majority are not even using general support services until the later stages of disease set in. And we know that the chronic stress that results from not getting a break can wreak havoc on a caregiver’s physical and mental well-being.
That’s why I sat up and took notice of the Caregivers’ Corner, a program feature now being used very effectively by several memory cafés in the Cornwall region of the UK. The Caregivers’ Corner is a table set off to one side of the memory café meeting room, where caregivers can come together for a portion of the meeting to share caregiving concerns and tips, separate from those they are caring for. Having this social time with other caregivers also provides an opportunity for a short break from caregiving.
It sounds simple conceptually, but if I had not seen it in action, I would have wondered how this could be done in a way that is respectful and maintains social inclusiveness. In an established memory café, where relationships have already formed, the idea that this table is just for caregivers can be made subtly through word of mouth, and gently maintained with the help of café volunteers. The Caregivers’ Corner that I observed participated in the group activities, but the placement of the table at a distance from the rest of the tables seamlessly provided a needed break for participating caregivers. Sue McDermott, the Cornwall Memory Café Network Facilitator, says that the Caregivers’ Corner also provides an important opportunity for guests with memory loss to experience independence and engage with peers on their own terms.
The success of these Caregivers’ Corners suggests that the social nature of memory cafés can cultivate a level of trust and connection that allows caregivers to participate in a respite experience that they may not seek out in a more formal context, and gives guests with memory loss an opportunity for some independence without the separation anxiety that can occur when caregivers are completely absent. It would be interesting to know whether participating in Caregivers’ Corners also helps caregivers consider a move towards using more formal respite options available in their community. But either way, the Caregivers’ Corner is a simple and respectful way for memory café programs to enhance their ability to provide patrons with peer connection and a much-needed break from their normal routines.
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