Upon learning that Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia conditions were a growing health crisis in Virginia and across the country, I began looking for ways to serve the often hidden number of community members who had memory issues. As the then adult programs coordinator at York County Public Library in Yorktown, Virginia, it was important to me that we find some way to make this portion of the community welcome at the library. That’s when I found Marjorie Hilkert, the Regional Memory Café Coordinator.
Hilkert had discovered Memory Cafés a few years before and realized they were an opportunity to serve one of the biggest needs of those suffering from dementia and their caregivers: social isolation. Isolation is a major factor in the quality of life for both those living with cognitive impairment and their families and caregivers. Isolation can lead to depression, which can accelerate the decline of persons with dementia. Isolation can also keep caregivers from being able to care for themselves.
A Memory Café, as Hilkert describes, is a social gathering for those suffering from memory loss and their caregivers. Each café offers its guests the chance for unstructured conversation, refreshments, and getting to know others with similar memory challenges. The Memory Café run at the Tabb Library was established in 2019 and is coordinated by Hilkert. It’s supported and run through a partnership between the Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health and the Peninsula Agency on Aging, as well as the York County Public Library.
Hilkert began coordinating Memory Cafés in a variety of locations in Williamsburg, but all of the facilities charged fees to use those spaces. While at one point a grant was supporting this project, money was always a concern. And since 2021, the program no longer has a grant and is entirely volunteer-led.
“A partnership with the library has been critical. Finding a place like Tabb Library, that was so open and wonderful and allowed us to come in there for free, was so helpful,” said Hilkert. “What I also like about the library is that it is a familiar place already for many of the people who come.”
People suffering from memory loss will often be reluctant to go to new places. But they may have been to the library already and be familiar enough with it that they are more willing to come again. In addition, getting someone with dementia comfortable with the library can often encourage the caregiver to bring them more often, giving both the person with dementia and their caregiver access to a valuable community resource.
“It’s a great marriage of sorts,” said Hilkert.
But what has been critical for the success of the Memory Café at Tabb Library and other locations coordinated by Hilkert is the unstructured nature of the cafés.
“We have talked to those that attend our cafés and they don’t want the activity or structure. They don’t want to follow a lecture or do crafts that may require skills they don’t have anymore,” says Marjorie. “They just want to chat.”
Dementia is often experienced differently by different people, with different levels of cognitive decline that vary widely. What is common is that when people are faced with forgetting anything from names to words to even how to eat or drink without spilling, they isolate themselves rather than risk doing those things in front of others.
“As they forget, they get embarrassed and their dignity is starting to slip away and they are afraid to socialize in the normal manner,” explained Hilkert. “That’s the whole idea behind an essential component of the Memory Café – get volunteers who are trained to be patient and nonjudgmental.”
When York County Public Library put out a call for volunteers, there was an enthusiastic response from the community. This allowed Tabb Library’s Memory Café to get up and running rather quickly, and gave it staying power to continue, even after it was put on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always wonder if we’re ever going to stagnate or see a decrease, but the cafés keep adding new numbers,” Hilkert said. “Most recently at Tabb we’ve been having 12-14 couples, increased from just a few at the beginning.”
But beyond the numbers, it’s the experience that is important.
“I absolutely love to see that as people get together and more comfortable, you start seeing the laughter, the smiles, them not being afraid to speak. The patience everyone gives each other is truly wonderful,” explains Hilkert. “Some even connect to each other so well that they get together outside of the café.”
For caregivers, who can often feel like no one else in the world is facing the challenges they are, the connection to other caregivers can be vital. One Memory Café guest commented that they are happy to have finally found a group of friends. Another compared it to being with family, which was important for them because they don’t have family in the area.
The nature of dementia means that guests may not remember the exact person they talked to or the place they’ve been, but upon returning, the experience will still feel familiar to them. This can make them more comfortable and willing to go places, which both reduces their isolation and increases their quality of life.
“They may not remember us, but they’ll remember what they felt when they come to the Memory Café,” said Hilkert. And that good feeling, that connection with others, is the Memory Café’s goal, as well as the York County Public Library’s goal in sponsoring this program.
-Elizabeth Land, York County Public Library