“Leave the diagnosis at the door” at Café Connection

Just saying the word “dementia” can create a feeling of fear, rejection, or worse. But if we live long enough, most of us will experience mild cognitive impairment or some type of dementia. Dementia is the general name for a decline in cognitive abilities that impacts a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. The word dementia itself is an umbrella term encompassing Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common and perhaps best-known form of dementia, but also Lewy Body Dementia, frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and a host of others.

As a Geriatric Case Manager at JFCS, Reva Farenback-Brateman noticed that some of our clients living at home were having trouble fully participating in many of the regular programs for seniors. They were bored, they were watching television all day, or they were sleeping more than was healthy. Sometimes their friends stopped calling them or worse, told them they couldn’t be in their mahjong game anymore. In many cases, their care partners also withdrew from outside social engagements with them – either out of embarrassment or fear that they would be rejected.

This is where memory cafés enter the picture. The concept is quite simple: bring people with brain change together with a care partner to socialize with others over coffee, and then engage in an interactive experience together. Beginning in England, there are now hundreds of memory cafés around the world. But sadly, New Jersey has very few. Café Connection–A Memory Café was created in 2016 as a collaboration between JFCS, the Katz JCC, and Jewish Senior Housing & Healthcare Service to fill a need for such programming in South Jersey. 

Held on the second Thursday of each month at the Katz JCC, Café Connection activities can include music – both singing or using simple instruments, movement, craft projects, horticulture, film clips, drumming, reminiscing, cookie decorating, and more. Guest artists lead the programs and trained volunteers assist, acting as hosts, welcoming participants, seeing to their needs, chatting with them, and more. Although the community resource table has information related to dementia, it is the one word that is not uttered at Café Connection. Their tagline is, “Leave the disease at the door and come enjoy a morning out together.” 

Café Connection continues to welcome new people each month. In fact, several of the former care partners now volunteer for the program! Both the person with brain changes and their care partners enjoy the socialization and the activities. The care partners in particular need a respite from their “to do” lists, as well.

“As a professional, creating and running this program has been one of the most rewarding experiences in a long career. As the population ages, more people will be living with brain changes. Creating dementia-friendly communities is an imperative for all of us,” shared Reva. Café Connection is free and open to the public; advance registration is required by contacting Reva Farenback-Brateman at JFCS: (856) 424-1333 ext. 1184 or rfbrateman@jfedsnj.org.

Café Connection – A Memory Café receives grant funding from the Camden County Board of Commissioners and the Raymond & Gertrude R. Saltzman Foundation.