August 11. 2018 9:26PM

Silver Linings: Alzheimer's cafes combine social interaction, mental stimulation

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader


UNH art student Allison Hoey points to a sculpture during an Alzheimer's Cafe at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester last week. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Upcoming events and memory/Alzheimer's cafes

• Memory Cafe at Langdon Place of Dover, 60 Middle Road, Dover. Discussion: “When to Take Away the Car Keys,” 2:30 p.m. Aug. 14.

• Capital Area Memory Cafe, at Granite Ledges of Concord, 151 Langley Parkway, Concord, 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 15 and Sept. 19, which includes a discussion on “Options at End of Life.”

• Alzheimer's Cafe at the Children's Museum of New Hampshire, 6 Washington St., Dover, 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 16 and Sept. 20, which includes an introduction to tai chi.

• Memory Cafe at Summerhill Assisted Living, 183 Old Dublin Road, Peterborough. Discussion: “How is Increased Longevity an Evolutionary Step Forward?” with Mary Catherine Bateson, a writer and cultural anthropologist, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Aug. 22. Limited seating; RSVP to 924-6238. The cafe usually meets the first Thursday of each month, 2 to 3 p.m.

• Easterseals' Memory Lane Cafe, 555 Auburn St., Manchester. Virtual tour of dementia, 9:30 to 11 a.m. Aug. 22. For reservations, call 621-3569.

• Upper Valley Memory Cafe, Howe Library's Mayer Room, 13 South St., Hanover, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sept. 15.

• Discussion with a geriatric psychologist on “Intimacy and Dementia,” Langdon Place of Dover, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 27.

A list of memory cafes in New Hampshire is available at memorycafedirectory.com. A list also is included with the New Hampshire Union Leader's Seniors News column on the last Monday of the month. Anyone interested in starting a caregiver support group or Alzheimer's or memory cafe can contact the Alzheimer's Association in Bedford at 800-272-3900, or Paula Rais at the Children's Museum in Dover, 742-2002 ext. 119.


MANCHESTER - Wilfred R. LeBlanc struggles with reduced hearing and garbled speech, but he becomes animated when an Edgar Degas painting of ballet dancers flashes on a screen at the Currier Museum of Art, during the monthly Alzheimer's Cafe.

The lifelong Queen City resident, now 79, leans forward in his wheelchair, glances left and right at a docent and his nephew, and announces, "Fun! I want to go there and dance with them!"

"What kind of music do you think they're dancing to, Willy?" asks Allison Hoey, an art education intern.

"They're dancing to cowboy music!" LeBlanc says.

Dressed in shorts, a bright blue shirt with embroidered shoulders and a black leather cowboy hat, he grins. The five other attendees, including art educators, laugh.

"Before this, he never even came to the museum," says Toby Henry, his nephew and caregiver. "Now he asks to come twice a week."

Stimulating experience

On the second Wednesday of each month, LeBlanc arrives at the Currier's monthly Alzheimer's Cafe with up to 20 others, including patients and caregivers, to enjoy art immersion, intellectual stimulation, casual conversation and social interaction - all keys to stalling and staving off the aggressive decline wrought by Alzheimer's and other dementias that ravage memory and thinking. Alzheimer's affects 24,000 New Hampshire residents age 65 and older, according to state and national reports. That number is predicted to reach 32,000 by 2025 - a 33 percent increase in seven years, as more baby boomers experience the illnesses and disabilities of aging.

Despite years of genetic research and pharmaceutical trials, no cure has emerged for Alzheimer's disease, which progresses slowly and relentlessly, chipping away at personality, speech, memory and behavior as it marches on. Alzheimer's and memory cafes are a critical part of the worldwide treatment landscape, combining social interaction and mental stimulation to preserve thinking, speaking, creativity, memory and independence - and extend patient functionality over time.

The Currier's cafe is unique in the Granite State for combining the strategies of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which hosts an art-based cafe, with the social interaction and engagement of the Alzheimer's Cafe at the Children's Museum of New Hampshire in Dover, which started in 2011 as the first Alzheimer's Cafe on the East Coast. The two in New Hampshire are free.

Currently, across the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia, patients, families and caregivers derive immediate and lasting benefits from gathering regularly to discuss their journeys and exchange information about support groups, clinical trials, medications, supplements and doctors who have been helpful. Many hop between Alzheimer's and memory cafes held in at least 10 New Hampshire cities and towns.

"We're likely reaching out to a new generation of people with early- to mid-stage dementia, including a few caretaker-spouses who come back even as their spouses graduate to more advanced stages and can't come anymore," says Brude McColl, director of art education at the Currier Museum.

A source of support

"It brings a sense of joy, belonging and community to people" who have a lot in common as patients and caregivers, but not much interpersonal support, says Paula Rais, vice president of development and community engagement at the Children's Museum in Dover. "It's something people come to look forward to. People say, 'We wish we had known about this years ago. I don't know what I would have done without these new friends.'"

Although there are ample resources online, nothing takes the place of meeting face to face with others going through it; families grapple with increasing isolation as the disease progresses, and the social engagements they enjoyed as couples become awkward, unsettling or impossible to participate in. Alzheimer's "makes it hard to do something as a family without a risk of someone there being uncomfortable or judgmental. You lose a sense of being out in the community. The friends you had maybe don't know how to relate to your experience. The cafe fills a little bit of that vacuum," Rais says. 

"Social isolation is one of the worst things" for patients, says Melissa Grenier, regional director for New Hampshire for the Alzheimer's Association. "It's also the worst thing for caregivers." Social engagement and mental stimulation reduce the risk of developing the disease in the first place and enable people with it to function longer at higher levels. 

At the Alzheimer's Cafe in Dover, on the third Thursday of each month, social connections and enjoyment top the agenda. There is frequently some form of entertainment, followed by free time for socializing. So far the lineup has included a Reiki therapist, a flamenco dancer, therapy dogs, wildlife educators who've brought snakes, turtles, porcupines and peregrine falcons, as well as musicians including chamber ensembles, ukulele strummers, and a brother and sister who play Celtic fiddle.

A happy place

"Sometimes we tell jokes, or talk about crazy dreams you've had or places you've traveled. We don't want to talk about Alzheimer's. We want to leave it outside the door," says Rais. "It's meant to be a happy place, a low-threshold place, a colorful place that's not clinical in any way."

Sharon Reid-Erickson of Rochester has been coming for two years with her husband, Alan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago at age 64. "You feel isolated and you don't know where to turn. Yeah, there's a website, but it's not the same as being face to face with people who are struggling the way you are. We've developed friendships there and support we can turn to when we're not at the cafe."

The cafe attracts people from Hampton, Lee, Rye, Rochester, Portsmouth and southern Maine, who travel up to 35 miles to get there, and has inspired the creation of a men's caregiver support group. Woody Sponaugle of Rye met other husbands caring for their afflicted wives at the monthly event, and decided to get training to facilitate a support group from the Alzheimer's Association in Bedford. He now speaks to caregivers around the state.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.