Memory cafés are expanding across the United States, mirroring the dramatic increase in Americans who have or are expected to have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) in coming years. By offering social support and connection, socialization, health, and wellbeing to participants (at any stage of disease progression) – and importantly, to their caregivers – in a welcoming environment, memory cafés are also of increasing interest to funders for the critical need they meet and unique supports they provide.
In August 2020, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and Health Foundation for Western & Central New York commissioned The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) to conduct an environmental scan of memory cafés with emphasis on their development in the U.S. Driven by the facts that 1 in every 10 Americans age 65 and older is living with a diagnosis of ADRD, and that those numbers are expected to increase to 14 million by 2050, the scan:
- Defines and describes memory cafés, including their core characteristics and geographic presence
- Summarizes the demonstrated benefits of memory cafés for participants and caregivers (as identified in the literature)
- Articulates the effective components and best practices of cafés and offers practical guidelines and tools for their implementation
- Identifies drivers of successful memory café expansion
- Explores potential applications of the model with other populations, including isolated older adults and caregivers
In short, here is what we learned.
What is a Memory Café?
Memory cafés take place in community venues, including libraries, coffee shops and restaurants, houses of worship, performing arts and other community centers, senior centers, assisted living centers, and other locations. Led consistently by a single host who often works with a small team (often including volunteers) to manage tasks from check-in to food service, activities, and socialization, each café usually meets for two hours once or twice a month and operates on a drop-in basis. Cafés provide a setting to listen to music, sing, play games, engage in the arts, socialize, and share community with those living with memory loss and other cognitive challenges. Caregivers do not “drop off” their loved ones; rather, the care partner, whether a friend, spouse or other relative, or a paid caregiver, enjoys activities together with the guest. In fact, a clinical diagnosis typically is not required to attend a café, as the focus is not on the illness but on engagement in activities to improve memory and brain health, keeping attendees mentally and socially active and with a positive, supportive experience for the caregiver, as well.
The host or facilitator is trained to offer guidance, respond to questions and requests for resources, is welcoming, and ideally has experience interacting with people who have ADRD. Volunteers often support café set-up, sign-in, socializing, and oversight. In addition, most memory cafés include access to at least one professional (nurse, social worker, or counselor) who can speak with caregivers or persons with ADRD about dementia-related issues and concerns, and about caregiving resources and supports. This is often the role of professional staff from the Alzheimer’s Association or county offices for the aging.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some memory cafés have ceased operations, however many have adapted to social gathering restrictions by moving online or outdoors where possible.
Memory Café Benefits
With 900 U.S. memory cafés operating in all 50 states, memory cafés are proliferating globally because they have been shown to have beneficial effects and impacts for participants. According to the Memory Café Directory, an online repository that catalogs memory cafés worldwide, the U.S. states with the most memory cafés are Wisconsin (139 cafés) and Massachusetts (130). Examination of the growth of memory cafés in states where they have flourished suggests that local funding, partnerships with government agencies, favorable state and local policies, individual champions, resources and technical assistance from café incubators, and media coverage are all effective drivers in helping cafés thrive.
Positive effects of memory cafés include (adapted from Massachusetts Memory Café Toolkit):
- Memory cafés normalize people living with ADRD and their care partners/caregivers
- Memory cafés provide peer support with others who can empathize
- Cafés allow care partners to develop social networks and reduce social isolation
- Care partners view memory cafés as a kind of respite and an opportunity to enjoy themselves socially, together with the person who has dementia
- Cafés act as a cost-effective entry point for needed resources and a way to support both the person with ADRD and the care partner
- Cafés foster participation in social activities and creative and cognitive stimulation that promote improved memory function in persons with ADRD
While each café’s specific activities, structure, and services vary, TPI’s environmental scan summarizes tips and strategies for operating a café and lists available toolkits and operations resources for those looking to fund or launch a memory café.
Role of Philanthropy in Supporting Memory Cafés
Local community foundations and other regional funders (like Bader Philanthropies in Wisconsin) as well as health foundations often support memory cafés. Memory cafés are not costly to operate. Meeting space is often donated, and café operations supported by volunteers. Costs include café host or coordinator staffing, refreshments, art and craft supplies, live entertainment, marketing, and outreach.
Foundation grants have variously financed memory café planning, operations, regional expansion, technical assistance support, and regional networking opportunities for memory cafés. Funders may also consider providing incubator resources and technical assistance for emerging cafés. Memory café growth is significantly advanced by the presence of collaborative networks. These typically provide a range of member services, including quarterly presentations and peer exchange opportunities, training and technical assistance, how-to information and resources for café operations, an online member directory, a guest facilitator or artist directory, assistance with grant applications, and support for public outreach and awareness. Leading examples include the Percolator Memory Café Network in Massachusetts, and in Wisconsin, the Fox Valley Memory Project and the Library Memory Project.
ADRD is a national and international health crisis that funders increasingly find themselves called to address, whether they be health or community foundations seeing spikes in caregiving needs, family foundations inspired by the personal impact of these diseases on loved ones, or others. If you are considering action on ADRD in some way, I encourage you to download the scan, generously provided free of cost by the sponsoring funders. If you have questions or insights into the role of philanthropy in supporting memory cafés or would like to share your foundation’s work with TPI and our community, we’d love to hear from you!