When Sarah Hollingworth and Marsha Swantz started a Memory Cafe in Southwest Portland, their mission was clear.
"I truly believe in just having fun," Swantz said.
Memory Cafes, sometimes known as Alzheimer's or Dementia Cafes, are social groups for those with memory loss and their care providers. Though the content of the cafes take many forms, Swantz and Hollingworth formulated theirs simply as a space to play. Participants often spend a majority of the time singing along to classic songs.
"The singalong is always amazing — it's one of those things where nobody's shy about it," Hollingworth said. "It's this sense of freedom and letting go and feeling connected."
"Even those in late-stage dementia can respond to music," Swantz said.
Hollingworth and Swantz began offering their Memory Cafe about six months ago after attending a workshop on memory care. Hollingworth works as a mental health clinician at Jewish Family and Child Service in Portland, running a program for elders living with depression or depression symptoms. Swantz became an advocate for memory care services after her mother was diagnosed with a memory loss disease.
Hollingworth notes that the Memory Cafe is meant for those with memory issues as well as their caretakers, and that it's "not a drop-off site." She says the aim is to offer support for care partners as well.
"They're oftentimes isolated and really dealing with the same struggles as their loved one or person that they're caring for," Hollingworth said. "In some regard, we are able to provide respite because we're offering this great distraction and this positive community setting, and we're also providing a space for caregivers to chat."
Hollingworth says the cafes have had strong turnouts and that people do feel a "sense of validation" in realizing there are others who share challenges and experiences in both caregiving and living with memory loss.
"I know a lot of folks have said, 'This is the highlight of my mom's months...but it's also this amazing time for me to come and feel supported,'" Hollingworth said.
'In it for the long haul'
Hollingworth considers the cafe an extension of her professional work, but she also has personal reasons deepening her commitment to the vision behind the cafe. After sustaining eight concussions while playing roller derby for nearly a decade, she experiences post-concussive memory loss symptoms.
"I'm trying to create this safe space that maybe I'll be realizing down the line," Hollingworth said. "So there's some of that as well, really trying to lay the groundwork for my potential future."
Swantz and Hollingworth are brainstorming to make the cafe interactive with the community. They are currently running it out of the Laughing Planet restaurant on Southwest Vermont Street, but they hope to soon meet at St. Luke Lutheran Church and possibly connect with the church's daycare to offer play time with the children.
Swantz wants people to start thinking of the Southwest Memory Cafe as a resource and permanent community fixture.
"We're in it for the long haul," she says with conviction.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Memory Cafe
WHERE: Laughing Planet Cafe, 4405 S.W. Vermont St.
WHEN: 2:30-4 p.m., the second Thursday of each month