Those on the dementia journey have a welcoming place in Okotoks.
The Memory Café was reintroduced this spring to give people dealing with memory loss and their caregivers a spot to meet for casual conversation and mutual support.
A partnership between the Town of Okotoks and the host Okotoks & District Seniors Club, the café runs from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, allowing those dealing with similar challenges an opportunity to connect with each other in an environment where they feel comfortable and supported.
“It can be isolating for caregivers and very taxing on them, especially if they don’t have the knowledge,” said Jennifer Mallamo, a subject matter expert on Dementia Friendly Communities.
Mallamo said there’s a huge need for the informal sessions as it not only gives caregivers a chance for some social interaction, but it’s also an opportunity for them to learn from each other as they’re often facing the same challenges.
The sessions have been drawing 20 or so people since returning from a pandemic-induced hiatus in May, but she said many others could benefit from attending.
Tracy Church, the Town’s adult recreation programmer, said the program’s strong volunteer base makes everyone feel welcome and ensures conversations flow smoothly. She said volunteers are tapped into the needs of those in attendance and make efforts to ensure everyone is engaged.
Church said at this point the sessions are a venue for informal conversations, but as the program grows, volunteers will be looking to add activities such as games, movement sessions and educational talks.
“It’s amazing what caregivers can glean from these sessions; you can’t put a value on that,” she said. “They come in wondering how am I going to navigate this journey and find support everywhere.”
Mary Duthie said she jumped at the chance to volunteer at the Memory Café because of connections she’s had with neighbours and friends who have faced dementia.
“I think it’s just wonderful,” said Duthie. "People that have dementia just love having someone to talk to and their caregivers love it that somebody will talk to them and they can talk to somebody different.”
She said volunteers get to know those in attendance a little bit better each month, that increased familiarity making it easier to visit.
Alan Rae and wife Joan Connor, who has been on her dementia journey for 11 years, brought the Conversation Café concept back with them from California five years ago and formed Dementia Network Calgary, which coordinates sessions throughout the region.
“For the person with dementia, it’s an opportunity to be out socializing and to interact with others so they know they’re not alone in this,” said Rae. “It’s a fantastic way for caregivers to be able to sit down and share similarities, problems, conquests that are occurring to them. If you don’t get out somewhere socially or to talk, you don’t know that.”
He likened the sessions to an AA meeting: “A person can come into this room and without much introduction or whatever, we can turn around and be talking about the intimate things about dementia and what’s gone on without any concern because everyone here understands it, everybody here is on that journey.”