ASHEVILLE — Walk into the Memory Café in the dining room at First Baptist Church in Asheville on the third Thursday afternoon of any month, and you’ll see people sitting comfortably at tables. Some play cards or dominoes. Some work together on a jigsaw puzzle, joining the pieces into a work of art. Some sip tea or coffee.
What’s not immediately obvious is that many people here are suffering from dementia.
The debilitating disease can steal more than a person’s memory. It can steal connections to society — and even to church. The person with dementia, and those who love and care for that person, may have profound feelings of loss, loneliness and isolation. The Memory Café at First Baptist provides the all-important social connections and sense of community that people with dementia may no longer find elsewhere.
For many of them, that may mean no more than a chance to talk.
“Conversation is what people are most interested in,” Leah Brown, First Baptist’s minister with senior adults, said recently.
And conversation, so difficult for people with dementia in many social settings, comes easily to participants at Memory Café.
As dementia begins to take its toll, affected people may be afraid of saying or doing something wrong in social situations. The caregivers — often a spouse or other relative — who go places with them may feel that they have to act as buffer and interpreter. Often, those affected by dementia simply stop going places.
“Dementia comes with such stigma that it’s harder for people to be out and about,” Brown said.
But like anyone else, they still crave human interaction. Memory Café, modeled on a program in Great Britain, provides a gathering where those with dementia and their caregivers can relax and socialize.
The Memory Café at First Baptist came about through a grant from the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, with support from Project C.A.R.E. (Caregivers Alternatives to Running on Empty), a program that helps those caring for people with dementia, and Park Ridge Health, a regional hospital.
Jane Sherman of Asheville, who wrote the grant proposal, invited area churches in the fall of 2012 to participate in training to become Memory Café hosts.
First Baptist answered the call, along with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, Calvary Episcopal Church in nearby Fletcher, and a senior center in Waynesville.
After eight First Baptist volunteers were trained, the church’s Memory Café opened on Oct. 18.
The café is not a drop-off program. A caregiver who can provide help if needed must accompany each person with dementia. In fact, part of the idea is for caregivers to mingle with others, Brown said.
Those who come may be as young as the 50s or decades older. They cross the spectrum of education and affluence. They may be in the early stages of dementia, or more seriously affected.
Some are members of the church who have stopped attending regular services and are happy to be able to reconnect with fellow members.
Others are people in the community who may have another church or no church. “We’ve been able to open our church to anybody in the community who wants a place for hospitality where they don’t feel set apart,” Brown said. “It’s a lovely thing.”
“Memory Café is our gift to those in our church and in the greater community who are dealing with dementia,” she said. “It is not our job to proselytize those from our community who attend, but it is our hope that we will share the warmth of God’s love with our hospitality and care. I think it is important to acknowledge that God wants us to be truly present and open with those around us.
“People living with dementia live in the present moment and may not remember the relationship we are developing with them month by month, but we do, and that is the gift,” she said.
Dorie Adams volunteers because she would have loved such an opportunity when she was dealing with her husband’s dementia. “Memory Café sets my mind at ease knowing that I have helped somebody,” Adams said. “It is tough taking care of someone with dementia. We help the caregivers because we are giving them a break, someone else to talk to.”
The training, she said, helped her know “what to say and what not to say.”
After five months, Brown considers Memory Café a success and is eager to spread the word. With support from the grant and the other Memory Café sites in the area, First Baptist will be the host on April 13 for “The Sacred Journey of Dementia,” a daylong conference for people with dementia, their caregivers and relatives, professionals and members of the community.
In June, “The Sacred Journey of Dementia” will be the name of a workshop Brown will lead at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly in Greensboro. Among other things, she will talk about the Memory Café “model of intentional hospitality” and how to minister to people with dementia and those who care for them.
Linda Brinson ([email protected]) is a Religious Herald contributing writer, based in Madison, N.C.