starting a memory café (1)

  • Memory Café in the Making

    Fort Walton Beach Neighborhood Memory Café in the Spotlight: 

    Maryann Makekau is off to a great start with her new memory café in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. And I’m not surprised. Her warmth and enthusiasm are palpable in every interaction—even her emails bring ‘Hugs from Maryann.’

    Hope Matters to Maryann. Through writing, speaking and advocacy, she spreads love and hope to people coping with cancer, deployment in war, memory loss and other difficult life situations. Where memory loss is concerned, it’s personal—her mother is living with Alzheimer’s and Maryann approaches every aspect of her new café with the experienced eye and heart of a caregiver. 

    The Fort Walton Beach Neighborhood Memory Café began in June of this year and their sixth café gathering is coming up on November 29th. A group of 20-30 are currently taking part in these monthly social events held at Synergy, a local organic juice bar and café.

    How did she start a successful memory café from scratch? Below, Maryann generously shares some helpful tips from her ongoing café development experiences.

    The format

    Like many memory cafés, the focus in Fort Walton Beach is on relaxing, chatting, and making new memories with others who are experiencing similar circumstances. She has also incorporated opportunities for guests to make art, experience music and dance. One very unique community building idea is their ‘memory board’ (see photo above).  Pictures of previous café gatherings are hung from a chalkboard and guests are encouraged to share their thoughts.

    “What word does this picture bring up for you?” she asks attendees.

    Maryann says the board has become a point of connection for creating community in the moment and remembering past experiences together.

    The venue

    Synergy Organic Juice Bar and Café sounds like just the place to nourish the mind, body and soul! Guests are served refreshing drinks, fresh coffee and healthy snacks. Maryann shared this tip about café ambiance: she pushes individual tables together to create one long table where everyone sits together ‘family style.’ She finds that this physical format creates a better space for connection and camaraderie.

    Maryann also knows that when couples or care partners venture out of the home, routine tasks can become a source of stress if their destination is not user-friendly. In that light, she made sure the venue was handicap accessible, particularly where the restroom facilities were concerned. She gave two additional suggestions not included in my earlier post on Memory Café Environments: 1) Make sure the restrooms are labeled as “unisex” during the event so that spouses can help their loved ones and, 2) Bring a basket with extra supplies like wipes, gloves and briefs—little conveniences that will make all the difference for guests.


    Maryann has rounded up several local sponsors—eight at this time—to help with supplies and food. Her thoughtful way of appreciating her sponsors is also respectful to her café patrons: While sponsors are not always present for the café event itself, she includes the names of these organizations on meeting reminder cards, tips sheets, and on the banner at the top of her Hope Matters Facebook page and website. Sponsors of the memory café currently include the local Massage Envy, a home health care agency, two assisted living facilities, a senior day care, and a medical imaging facility. Additionally, a local hospice and a graphic arts company provide in-kind donations of supplies and artistry, respectively. The Synergy Café generously closes its doors to the public for the memory café gatherings each month and provides healthy snacks at a fixed low price (with costs paid by the sponsors). Although the local Alzheimer’s Association supported her initiative by attending the café’s opening day event, they are not sponsoring the café directly.

    Outreach, outreach, outreach…

    Maryann also has some useful suggestions on outreach. When first starting out, she did a press release, reaching out to local media to ensure coverage of their opening day event. Importantly, she formed collaborations with local community-based services and medical providers to further spread the word to people in need and increase the likelihood of direct referrals. Maryann made in-person contact with support groups, neurologists and other physicians in the Fort Walton Area and continues to pass out flyers with information about upcoming meetings. One of the café attendees is also on board helping Maryann’s volunteer efforts with the outreach.

    For those of you who are just getting started and/or looking for simple marketing ideas, Maryann has provided us with her press release, café event flyer, the brief summary she uses on meeting reminder cards, and an information sheet for potential sponsors. Feel free to use them as templates for your own café outreach and fundraising needs.

    The name

    Maryann says she included the word “neighborhood” in the café name because she is hopeful it will inspire the emergence of more grassroots memory cafés across the Florida Panhandle. In particular, the recent news report out of Cornwall, UK on the development of a memory café specifically for veterans has her thinking about that need in the Panhandle area.

    “We have a large military population here and it would be great to work towards developing similar cafés in coordination with existing veteran services in our area.” Wouldn’t that be a fantastic addition here in the US?

    I applaud Maryann’s vision of “more memory cafés… as places where isolating stigmas are uncommon and miracles inside Alzheimer’s are commonplace.”

    Hugs to you, Maryann, for your inspiration and thoughtful tips!

    To learn more about how to start a memory café see the Guidance section of our Resources page for links to available handbooks, toolkits and guides.



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