The Alzheimer's Café: Unforgettable Therapy

Jan 3, 2013

John and Rhea Pereira attend the Alzheimer's Cafe in Dover each month.
Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

Once a month, it’s a decidedly older demographic meeting here at the Children’s Museum in Dover.

A dozen or so seniors gather inside a brightly painted conference room. There’s coffee, cake and, this month, some live entertainment from 'The Sea Reeds,' a quartet of local clarinetists.

For Rhea Pereira, the music is a chance to sing along with friends. She and her husband John moved here from Florida three years ago, when Rhea began experiencing memory problems. 

"It is sad," says John. "A terrible disease. An evil disease. Because over time, it steals everything you’ve even known.  It steals your family, your friends. It steals everything and leaves you with nothing. It is a horrible disease."

Back in the mid-90s, Dr. Bere Miesen, a Dutch psychiatrist, pushed the idea that social interaction is a key way to slow down Alzheimer’s devastating effects on the brain.

He came up with the Alzheimer’s Café…a gathering with no pressure, and no real structure like you may find at a support group.

The idea took off, and now these get-togethers are popping up around America.

The group enjoys the stylings of The C Reeds at The Alzheimer's Cafe in Dover.
Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

Dr. Sandeep Sobti, a geriatric psychiatrist in Dover, says the cafés provide a safe space for patients to socialize and relax.

"For patients, because of dementia, they get isolated; worried about being perceived as someone less than who they used to be."

Here, patients can be comfortable. Everyone gets it if you can’t remember a name, or struggle in a conversation.

Dr. Sobti says family, many of whom are tasked with 24/7 care, also benefit from the cafés.

Fabian Dandaneau has been coming each month. His wife is struggling with the disease.

"This group is great because they don’t have any expectations, they don’t expect you to do anything. And it is just a good time for a couple of hours, at the Children’s Museum of all places. It is ironic to be at the children’s museum, but it is fun to be here."

Throughout 'The Sea Reeds' performance, kids wander in and out, drawn by the singing.

Only a few of the Alzheimer’s Cafés in America are held at children’s museums. Paula Rais is the Director of Community Engagement here, and says the setting is perfect for keeping things light.

"Nobody wants to go to a dull, clinical space to try to socialize and relax…it just seemed like a perfect match."

The museum may be a good fit, but the present can still be a challenge.

Looking around, you see some looks of confusion. Some guests don’t engage, and are content to sit quietly.

But, there is also plenty to laugh about.

"I’m 83, she’s 82. But she is a young, beautiful 82," says Tom Puorro.

Tom and Betty Puorro of Exeter. The two were set up on a blind date in 1948, and married two years later.
Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

His wife of 62 years, Betty, takes the compliment in stride.

"He’s always trying. He can’t help it."

The couple holds hands throughout the afternoon. Tom says it is important to keep his wife active and engaged.

"You develop such wonderful rapport with these people. Lots of hugging, lots of kissing. It is wonderful therapy, especially for the person you are taking care of."

And for the caregivers, too. The husbands and wives, sons and daughters. The Alzheimer’s Cafes are a brief chance to enjoy the company of those in the same situation. To check in with each other. A time and space to forget about forgetting, at least for a little while.