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.

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