By Diana Nelson
Not so long ago, having a memory disorder or caring for someone who did often meant isolation.
Enter Memory Café, a weekly support group for people with a dementia-related illness and their caregivers. The meetings are offered by the city of Tempe along with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
Each Monday, from 9:30 a.m. until noon, Tempe Public Library, 3500 S. Rural Road, hosts the meeting on the lower level in the TLC room.
Caregivers can take a break and, in a casual setting, visit with others who share their experiences and concerns. During the same time, those with dementia are kept occupied with activities.
“We want to encourage people to live well with these chronic conditions,” said Jane Gerlica, Outreach Program Manager for Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and coordinator of the Memory Café meetings, along with Jan Dougherty.
“Each Monday at the Memory Café, the community comes together to offer support, friendship and education in a relaxing atmosphere,” said Gerlica. “The group is free and open to anyone, not just Tempe residents.
“Bring your care recipient and get connected with others who are also looking for assistance and support.” Gerlica, a professional social worker, says that it’s a positive that finally the public is openly talking about memory illnesses.
“It was kind of a hidden disease in the past,” said Gerlica. “Lots of people who had memory disorders were embarrassed to go out, and that kept their caregivers trapped at home as well. I think Memory Café is such an exciting program for the community because we can offer families hope and emotional support.
“And, while it’s still a learning process on how to respond to someone affected with a memory disease, it’s also important for society to seek solutions as the numbers of cases continue to grow worldwide.”
Estimates say as many as 5.7 million people in the U.S. suffer with some form of memory loss, and that number will nearly double in the next 30 years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dementia-related illnesses claim more lives than breast and prostate cancer combined, and the condition is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the elderly.
Dougherty, from the Banner Institute, says Arizona statistics estimate that 80,000 Maricopa County residents have dementia with a total of 120,000 cases in Arizona.
State projections indicate that these numbers also will double in the next 10 years.
At Banner, the emphasis isn’t on grief or fear. The focus is on the groundbreaking research and care that will get us to the goal of ending Alzheimer’s before another generation is lost, Dougherty explained.
And, while there is no cure for dementia and memory-loss illness, Tempe chose to take a positive approach by looking to provide quality-of-life solutions to help residents cope with the condition.
It became designated as a Dementia Friendly City through a national organization, Dementia Friendly America.
The initiative is close to the heart of Mayor Mark Mitchell because in 2008 his mother, Marianne, was diagnosed with dementia.
A former schoolteacher in Tempe, she was cared for at home by her husband, Harry, until 2015 when the family moved her to a memory care facility.
“I’ve watched what this disease has done to our family and the toll being a caregiver took, particularly on my father,” said Mitchell.
“We are the only Dementia Friendly city in the state, and I am proud to serve as a catalyst to developing solutions for people suffering from dementia and to have other cities follow our example.”
The Dementia Friendly Tempe initiative launched in 2016 and the Memory Café support group began the same year.
“It was a slow start with only about six people in attendance, but in the next two years, we’ve grown to about 50 people who attend the meeting each week,” recalls Gerlica. The dementia initiative also
led to training first responders on ways to best deal with the elderly. Plans now are underway to train city staff members and volunteers, said Gerlica.
In addition, on the second Wednesday of the month from 1 to 2:30 p.m., a free monthly lecture series is offered at the Tempe Public Library, which focuses on various topics related to memory loss and care giving and is presented by a professional in the field.