For dementa patients and their families and friends, ‘This group helps’

Memory Cafes are a safe, comfortable spot for people with memory loss and their caregivers to gather, share information and socialize with each other.

Linda McCone, program coordinator of Caregiver Support at Lutheran Community Services Northwest, said there is a lot of stress involved with caregiving.

“This group helps,” she said. “For one thing, it makes the people with dementia feel less like social outcasts because a lot of them self-isolate, and by the time they are later on in the disease, it’s difficult for them to form friendships.”

A diagnosis of dementia is devastating, said McCone, making it “so helpful for the caregivers to have someone else to talk to and compare notes with. This is sort of a support group with socialization.”

Sharon Coy is caregiving for her husband, Kip, who is 73 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. They attend both the Memory Cafe and the Zoo Walk in Tacoma – another social activity coordinated by McCone — on a regular basis. Sharon said she and Kip enjoy the interaction at the monthly meetings.

“We get out and socialize, and Kip is always willing to go. It’s always a positive experience for him, and I’ve learned a lot,” she said.

Meeting other people in the same situation has been helpful because they share tips on how to deal with the daily challenges of caring for someone with memory loss, Coy explained.

“The socialization is great for me. We are not a maudlin group, but we are factual,” she said.

Since January 2016, Memory Cafe has been operating in Tacoma, meeting on the fourth Wednesday of every month at Elmer’s restaurant at 7427 S. Hosmer from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Last October, another café group started meeting in Gig Harbor at The Harvester restaurant at 5601 Soundview Dr. on the third Saturday of each month from 3 to 4:30.

At the January Memory Cafe meeting in Tacoma, Debbie Maguire attended for the first time and brought her good friend JaDene Eberlein, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“She is the sweetest thing on the planet,” said Maguire, who expressed excitement at how much they both enjoyed their first visit.

“We will go to the next one, too. That is my commitment, and such a sweet commitment to make. I got to spend the day smiling so much my face hurt. Afterward we had banana splits and I just listened to Ja talk. It was one of the most rewarding days of my life,” she said.

Eberlein’s husband, Bob, said Ja was diagnosed two years ago.

“It is heartbreaking, watching somebody that you know is such a smart person, an on-the-ball person, to watch her lose that before your eyes,” he said.

The Memory Café get-togethers have a comfortable, predictable routine to them. McCone greets everyone when they come through the door as they sign in and get their nametags.

“We do an activity — everyone’s favorite is Jeopardy — and we also do jokes and contests where you finish someone’s sentence,” McCone said.

“This disease can be so isolating to caregivers, as they are there 24/7, 365 days a year, and it is wearing. Caregivers need to get out and make friends and remain connected.”

McCone said that because everyone’s brain is different, they never know how the disease will progress.

“Everyone is unique. When you see one person with Alzheimer’s, you have seen just one person with Alzheimer’s. Everyone’s progress is different,” she said.

Another option for people suffering from memory loss and their caregivers is the Early Stage Memory Loss Zoo walk, a partnership between Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW) and the Alzheimer’s Association. The walks – one on Friday and one on Monday each week — take place at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma. The group walks together for about 45 minutes and then meets at the zoo’s cafe.

“People have made friendships, and the nice thing is you are walking and getting some physical exercise and there is something to talk about,” said McCone.

Even folks who have lost their ability to speak interact by pointing, and another member of the group will shout it out for them.

“There are instantaneous conversation-starters when people walk together. Folks enjoy the opportunity to get out and move around,” said McCone.

The Zoo Walk is free to participants. The Monday walk begins at at 11 a.m. and Friday’s at 9:30 a.m. Volunteers lead the walks.

McCone loves her job and the interaction with people.

“We’re making a difference with folks, and I really see the difference. We have a lot of the same people at the Zoo Walks, and they have made friends,” said McCone, who can be contacted at at 253-722 5691 for more information on the Memory Cafe or the Zoo Walk.

While a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be devastating, “being proactive makes the journey more worthwhile,” said Sharon Coy. “When we had the final diagnosis (for her husband), I said to myself and to anyone who would listen to me, ‘My life will never be the same,’ and it hasn’t been the same. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad life. It is just a different life.”


Joan Cronk, who wrote this article, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Senior Scene.

Fans of Memory Cafe and Zoo Walk include Heather Gurley (foreground), who accompanies her father, Worth Gurley, to the activities. (Joan Cronk/for Senior Scene)