Memory cafe a safe place for socialization

When Diane Cagan thinks back to her first time at a “memory cafe,” it’s all smiles.

It was “just perfect,” she says. “It was better than I ever expected.”

The Penn Memory Center began hosting memory cafes in December. They are exclusively for people like Cagan’s husband, Paul, who have Alzheimer’s disease or other memory problems, and their caregivers. It’s a safe space without judgment or fear, created to boost comfortable interaction with others in similar situations.

“My husband is in his fourth year of the disease, and he’s gotten very quiet,” Cagan says. “It gets to a point where he’s afraid to talk because he’ll say the wrong words.”

On Friday, Dec. 4, the pair headed to Christ Church for the very first Penn memory cafe. About 13 other Penn Memory Center patients did the same. Cagan was interested in how her husband would handle the new situation.

“I left his side to talk with some others, and when I came back he was surrounded by three other people, just chatting and enjoying himself,” Cagan says.

Seen often in parts of Europe, a memory cafe is a new concept to the Philadelphia area. There’s no agenda to the hour-and-a-half-long afternoon experience—it’s supposed to be just like any other cafe.

Genevieve Ilg, a Penn master’s in social work student, presented the idea of starting a local memory cafe last summer to Felicia Greenfield, her internship supervisor at the Penn Memory Center.

“I wanted to create a space for people with memory problems where they won’t experience stigma or any other sort of misunderstandings,” Ilg says. “I wanted it to make them feel themselves without any sort of compromise.”

Greenfield, the Penn Memory Center’s director of clinical research operations and care programs, gave Ilg the green light, and the two have been coordinating cafes since.

“It’s difficult sometimes to bring people with Alzheimer’s disease into public because they might be disoriented or they might be inappropriate, and sometimes the caregiver feels embarrassed or it’s hard to manage it,” Greenfield says. “As a result, families who are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease tend to withdraw socially and become more isolated.”

That’s a problem, Greenfield explains, because social engagement is “one of the key aspects of healthy aging.” People with memory problems need to be social now more than ever.

“The memory cafe allows the patients to get out and engage in a non-restrictive environment, and they get to be with their caregiver,” she says. “The same goes for the caregivers who feel like they need to be with the patient. We don’t want the caregivers to leave, but they don’t necessarily have to sit next to who they came with.”

There is a pop-up memory cafe slated for every month through April at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. Times vary. Greenfield and Ilg have secured a partnership with Kitchen Gia, which donates coffee and pastries. Right now, the memory cafes are being advertised strictly to Penn patients—mostly who live at home with their caregivers.

“We’re starting small and seeing what evolves,” Greenfield says. “If there were a way, we’d love to bring it into the suburbs, and extend it to people outside of the Penn network.”

Either way, you can expect to see Diane and Paul Cagan there.

“Unless something really important interferes, we’ll be at all of the memory cafes,” Diane Cagan says. “I’m really happy Penn Memory Center started this. I am genuinely thrilled.”