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Special Cafe Offers An Oasis For People With Alzheimer's And Their Caregivers

Bonnie Petrie
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio residents with a diagnosis of dementia and their caregivers gather once a month at this memory cafe.

Tucked inside a nondescript building in a residential neighborhood in northwest San Antonio is a little cafe. However, here the coffee doesn't come in Italian sizes, and the guests provide the music. Welcome to a memory cafe.


Mixed into the crowd are people with dementia and their caregivers. Carole White, director of the UT School of Nursing Caring for the Caregiver program, said this type of cafe designed to give these men and women a chance to relax and hang out, just like at a regular cafe.

"A memory cafe is meant to be a social event where people travelling the same journey can meet, have fun, learn from one another and often develop friendships."


On a day in mid-March, nearly two dozen people gathered in front of a young guitarist playing songs from past eras. Some of the elderly men and women sang along.

White said people gather at this cafe, set up in a conference room at Jefferson Outreach, once a month.

Credit Bonnie Petrie / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
There are games and music for those with dementia and their caregivers to enjoy every month at the memory cafe.

"Today we're doing music. We're singing songs,” White said. “Last month, we had an improv artist that was really beneficial for people learning to communicate with their loved ones who may have communication difficulties."


Sheran Rivette is a specialist in family caregiving with Caring for the Caregiver. She was a caregiver for her husband, and that experience informed her work with the memory cafe. She said safe, social experiences like those  at the memory cafe are invaluable for both caregivers and those with dementia.


"The value of that is the contrast of being socially isolated, which happens so often to caregivers and the loved ones they're caring for, and that can lead to depression and isolation to a greater depth than you've ever known it," Rivette said.


On this day, city councilmember Ana Sandoval was at the cafe, singing along. Jefferson Outreach is in her district, but she said San Antonio has a large and growing older population, so the conversation about dementia must be citywide.


"To begin to take away the stigma,” Sandoval said. “Dementia is with us, right? Until there is a cure found for us, we will have community members with dementia. They should not be isolated. We should be able to interact with them."


Most of the strain of caring for Texans with dementia is borne by their spouses, children, and other family members. The Department of State Health Services says more than 1.4 million Texans were acting as unpaid caregivers in 2017, providing 1.6 billion hours worth of unpaid care.


Caregivers need support, and White said sometimes they need a little break. They get one at the cafe.


"It can be a time when they can be with their loved one and socialize and not worry about the challenges of care. They don't have to worry about maybe if there's some behavioral issues. It's a very inclusive environment where caregivers can relax. Where everyone is accepting," White said.


While the caregivers relax, Rivette said guests that are in various stages of cognitive decline can have a little fun.


"There are parts of the brain that are still so active and they can still be tapped into maybe with a game or a song as we sang today and bring back those words and that melody. It just uplifts us," Rivette said.


Uplifting those with dementia — and those who make up their support systems — is the goal of those at Caring for the Caregiver. They hope soon there will be memory cafes all over city, but until then, anyone with dementia and their caregivers are welcome at this one.


Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.