Standing in front of a crowd of about two dozen people at the Jewish Family & Children Services center in Waltham, Boston-based artist Brenda Atchison wanted to know how many people in the room had been told they weren’t very good at art. About half raised their hands.
As Atchison moved through her presentation, which included PowerPoint slides on Matisse and his use of color, she was mindful that many in the audience were suffering from some form of dementia. The rest of those in attendance were caretakers, friends and family members supporting their loved ones living with the disease.
On this recent Friday morning, Atchison was facilitating an activity at the JF&CS Memory Café entitled “Postcards From My Mind.”
Memory cafés are places where people with Alzheimer’s or other neurocognitive disorders — along with their caregivers — can connect with others who share their experiences. Some cafés primarily provide information and resources. Others opt for unstructured chat and socialization. The memory café at JF&CS is activities-based, with a focus on the arts.
“The creative arts are wonderful because there’s no wrong answer,” said Beth Soltzberg, director of the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Family Support Program at JF&CS.
“A lot of arts-based activities don’t rely on language, which is something that’s often affected by dementia, and a lot of different parts of the brain are engaged with things like singing, dancing, drumming, or making visual art,” said Soltzberg.
With Atchison’s direction, guests gathered construction paper, scissors, and glue sticks to create cut-outs inspired by Matisse. Many had never done anything like this before, but everyone eventually began to cut and paste, chatting with each other as they worked.
“The activities that we do are really invigorating for people. They don’t always get a chance to stretch themselves and try something new,” Soltzberg said.
According to Soltzberg, the memory café model started in Holland in 1997 and eventually spread around the world and, at some point, to Massachusetts. When Soltzberg started the JF&CS memory café in 2014, it was only the second in the state.
Soltzberg reached out to memory cafés around the country for advice, drawing largely from a café hosted by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. They inspired her to make her café intergenerational by working with student volunteers from Brandeis University.
“It’s wonderful for our guests to spend time with people who are younger, and it’s wonderful for the students to see older adults and people living with dementia in a setting where they’re really joyful and their strengths can come out,” Soltzberg said. “It really does shift people’s view of what it can mean to live with a neurocognitive disorder.”
Volunteers from the Waltham Group, a community service organization based out of Brandeis, regularly work with the JF&CS.
Brandeis student Nishaat Mukardam has volunteered at the JF&CS Memory Café twice. She floated around the room with the other volunteers, stopping every so often to offer help or chat with a guest.
“I used to work in India with people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions. I love working with elders, it’s something very close to my heart,” Mukardam said. “It’s amazing to see people’s spirits here.”
As more people began regularly attending Soltzberg’s memory café, she found herself fielding requests for the monthly memory café to happen more frequently.
“I didn’t have the budget for that,” Soltzberg said. “I thought, what I can do is share what I’ve learned about running this program with other providers, just as the Dartmouth folks and so many other people around the country had done for me when I got started.”
Soltzberg established the Percolator Memory Café Network with the goal of connecting prospective and current memory café hosts, providing information and resources on running memory cafés, and encouraging collaboration between cafés in Massachusetts. Currently, 84 memory cafés are listed on the percolator’s online directory.
Memory cafés can be started by anyone anywhere, but, according to Soltzberg, the majority are in partnership with local councils on aging or community service providers, like JF&CS. They have been held in houses of worship, restaurants, libraries, and even gardens.
Patricia “Chi” McCormack is the director of Boston’s Alzheimer’s Initiative, and with the help of Soltzberg and the percolator, she started three memory cafés in Boston. The Grove Hall, East Boston, and Charlestown cafés serve three distinct communities with a variety of art-based programming.
“If you are constantly trying new things, experiencing new things and associating with new people in new and different ways, that’s pushups for the brain,” McCormack said. “That’s the way to keep the brain stimulated. All of those things happen at memory cafés.”
Activities range from drumming and dancing to building graham cracker houses and painting Easter eggs. However, McCormack found that what her guests enjoyed most was engaging with their memory.
“We started off with arts and crafts and drawing and things like that, but we moved into reminiscence, and that’s the thing that they like best,” McCormack said. “There’s a whole theory that what makes us unique human beings is our memory. I come in with questions, and everybody has these fabulous stories, and they share them, and it’s a great way of making community.”
According to McCormack, when people living with dementia are asked to recall specific memories, it can be painful when they don’t remember. This is why she attempts to stick to general topics like pets or childhood, and it often reveals connections between guests.
“It can be very isolating to have Alzheimer’s disease or to be a caregiver, and the more that we can help provide a safe and comfortable space to reconnect people, the better off I think it will be,” said Emily Shea, commissioner on affairs of the elderly for the city of Boston.
Memory cafés designate themselves as being dementia-friendly, meaning the staff and attendees are familiar with the disease and the way it manifests and can respond appropriately. According to Shea, places like local coffee shops and restaurants may not be as welcoming to people with dementia because behavior typical of the disease is not as widely understood or accepted. This often discourages individuals with dementia and their caregivers from going out at all.
“Until I started working with the Alzheimer’s Association, I didn’t realize how difficult it is when you are caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia to find activities you can do together,” said McCormack. “This a place where both of you can go and be with other people on a level playing ground. They’re all there for the same reason. They’re incredibly accepting of each other, and no one’s judging each other.”
As the JF&CS Memory Café drew to a close, the guests shared their cut-out creations. One participant, an avid Boston sports fan, showed off her collage featuring jerseys and athletic equipment. Another’s collage was a festive combination of Christmas imagery. Another participant, Linda Biondo, revealed her collage to the praise of the rest of the group. She admitted that she initially doubted her ability to make something, but by the end of the activity, she had found a new talent within herself.
“Kids do this when they’re young. We don’t do this when we’re adults,” Biondo said. “We’ve got to get the kid back in us.”