A network of cafes aimed at connecting people living with dementia and their loved ones to one another and gently introducing them to support services is proving the perfect pick-me-up. Marie Sansom reports.
Alzheimer’s Australia Victoria runs eight dementia cafes, funded through Victoria’s Department of Health and the Australian government, eight times a year in venues like RSLs, function centres and cafes in parks.
The cafes run for two hours during the morning or afternoon with food and entertainment provided, which can range from 1950s music to show tunes and acapella.
Counsellors, service providers and volunteers are also on hand to advise people, point them to other services or just check-in with them and see how they’re doing.
Jenny Philipp, program manager for early intervention services at Alzheimer’s Australia Vic says one of the biggest advantages of the cafes, which are open to everyone and don’t need a referral, is that they provide a soft introduction to the support services available, which some people may be reticent to access.
She says older people often feel they have to be stoic and hold back from asking for support because they worry it shows that they’re not coping.
“Coming to a cafe is a really normal way for people to begin to access services and that’s the joy of it,” Philipp says.
“They often think they’re not in a program – they’ve just come for a cup of coffee – but then they meet other people who have joined certain groups or accessed services and they start to feel more comfortable.”
She finds that people with dementia will often advocate for programs, council services and support groups that they have tried themselves to other people with dementia and she says this is a powerful process.
“They meet other people in the same situation and by hearing other people saying: ‘this has been life changing’ or ‘this has been fabulous’, they’re more likely to see if that works for them, rather than have a service provider come into the home and say: ‘this is what you need.’”
Anne Tunks from Sydney South West Area Health Service’s Dementia Advisory Service, which runs two monthly dementia cafes in Sydney’s inner west, says the cafes are also a great way for service providers to make their services more accessible, as well as informally gathering feedback on how they are performing.
At the same time, the cafes give community care workers the chance to check-in with people – they can see if people have lost weight or are, perhaps, not dressing themselves so well any more – and to make sure they have the support they need.
Apart from being a great way to link people to different services, she says the cafes provide a refuge for carers, who can sometimes feel anxious about taking a person with dementia to an everyday cafe in case their behaviour is difficult to manage.
“Carers say they sometimes don’t feel comfortable taking the person with dementia out to a general cafe,” Tunks says.
“They’re a bit concerned about what they might do or they can’t really relax if they’re on their own. The person [with dementia] might be really restless or agitated.
“At our cafes carers know they can just turn up and there will always be someone they can talk to and there’s always people who can engage with the person with dementia and make it a more pleasant outing.”
Both women say the dementia cafes strengthen the carer relationship, whether that’s between a person living with dementia and their partner or their support worker, grandchildren, son or daughter.
Philipp says it is a good social outing and something positive people can do together.
“People have planned activities and they love the respite time but they often want something they can do together. By coming to the cafe they know that it’s a family, supportive environment and they can relax and enjoy some good food and quality entertainment,” she says.
Tunks says carers often access support groups and people with dementia may attend day centres but going to a dementia cafe brings them together.
Phillip says it’s heart-warming to see how the support that people get from the cafes can make them feel less alone and enable them to live better lives with dementia.
“Often with people having a diagnosis of dementia, they start to withdraw from their social groups or family and friends – or even family and friends can withdraw from them,” she says.
“There’s such a strong sense of peer support there, it really is quite powerful. Simple things, like a cafe, turn into something really important in their lives.”
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