The Memory Café—it sounds like the name of a 1950s diner.

And, even though they both serve food, the term, "Memory Café" is the official moniker of a new breed of social gathering for seniors and their caregivers that has begun cropping up around the country.

Originally a concept developed in the United Kingdom (UK), the Memory Café concept was ferried across the pond by Lori La Bey, speaker, radio host, and CEO of Alzheimer's Speaks. She is also one of the founders of J. Arthur's Memory Café—the first official café in the U.S.

La Bey likens Memory Cafés to, "social support groups" for people suffering from dementia and their caregivers.

One support group, hold the disease

‘Support group' is a tidy, if slightly imprecise, way of explaining the true function of a Memory Cafe.

According to La Bey, Memory Café meetings give caregivers and those stricken with dementia, "a place where they can go that is safe and comfortable, where they can have friends and interaction."

She points out that the difference between a Memory Café and a support group is that a Café gathering is more about the camaraderie, and less about the disease. This approach invites more candid sharing of ideas and solutions to common issues.

The specific topic of the disease does get addressed to varying degrees during each meeting, depending on the needs of the group.

Someone in the group may express a particular concern—like a caregiver who wants to know more about how to calm their loved one who is prone to sundowning. The other members then chime in and help brainstorm different techniques. Sharing similar challenges and hearing others’ solutions and adaptive practices is not only a learning experience but also a valuable use of time. Relationships are built, strengthened and some problems get solutions.

However, unlike its cousin, the support group, J. Arthur's Memory Café does not offer things like formal screening, or scripted presentations about the disease.  This beneficial environment serves a different set of purposes.

Keep ‘em social and sunny-side up

There is also less formal structure to most Memory Café meetings. Instead, members are afforded the ability to eat treats, play games, and chat, with the main objective being to socialize and have fun. The setting is similar to casual senior centers where folks gather socially.

La Bey puts it this way, "When you hang out with your friends, do you want it to be really structured, or do you want to have the freedom to do what you like?"

When talk does turn to the disease, the specially-trained group facilitator does their best to prevent discussion of the problems associated with it from overwhelming the gatherings. La Bey says that "grief sessions" are to be avoided because, though grief is something to be addressed, these groups are designed to be about hope and how to live with the disease. Simple ideas that are shared by one person, may be a long sought after solution for another. Participants keep the subject matter fairly common and focus on solutions as opposed to the challenges and negativity that are so often connected with the disease.

If a person does not wish to participate in a dialogue about memory loss, they are free to stay and socialize or do activities with others who would prefer to keep the mood light. This flexible format provides valuable social interaction, which is an important element in maintaining a high quality of life with this disease.

It is the unscripted nature of the gatherings that helps define Memory Cafés as places where people who have become isolated, can come together and socialize with others who understand their struggles.

For the caregiver, the Memory Café offers a safe place to give and receive counsel and support. "It's empowering for them to be part of a group, to give advice and help others," La Bey says. "They get a lot out of being able to help other care partners, it gives them the feeling that, ‘this craziness isn't all for nothing.'" Participants find solace in knowing that they are not alone in their experiences.

For the person faced with dementia, the Memory Café offers a much-needed chance to interact. According to La Bey, even those whose memory loss has become so profound that it makes it difficult for them to be actively involved in the discussions enjoy it simply because they feel like part of a group again. Their expressions and thoughts prove to be extremely valuable.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

Uniquely personal support, on the fly

J. Arthur's began in 2011, and La Bey says that the Memory Café concept is catching on like wildfire. Those who are interested can refer to an online national directory for people looking for Memory and Alzheimer's Cafés near them.

Most Memory Cafés are free for anyone dealing with the disease, whether they're a caregiver or a sufferer.

Memory Cafés in the U.S. do not receive government funding. But, La Bey thinks that it might be better if federal financial support is never offered. "In a way, I hope not. I really think that the only way we're going to make a difference with this disease is by thinking differently and collaborating," she says.

La Bey's work with J. Arthur's taught her just how important it is to think differently.

When they were coming up with concepts for meetings at J. Arthur's, the design team thought that the people coming to the Memory Café would desire some sort of organized programming.

They quickly found out, however, that that is not what people and their caregivers wanted. "They just want to be with like-minded people, to develop friendships, to laugh and have fun," says La Bey. Removing a strict agenda and presentation-type dialogues encourages an open forum to share more personally.

And therein lays the key to the unique level of personal support offered by a Memory Café: listening to those who are dealing with dementia in their day-to-day lives.

"I would like to see more people listen to people who have memory loss," La Bey says, "We're all guessing what it's like. There's no need to guess—we just need to ask."