Amy's Place is the first free-standing Memory Cafe in the U.S. and its goal is simple: to give caregivers a little TLC.
Posted in , Apr 16, 2018
Pam Van Ahn and her sister Jean spent four years providing respite care to family caregivers who couldn’t afford a break. But Van Ahn wanted to do more to help full-time caregivers manage the stress of looking after a loved one.
She founded Amy’s Place, a memory care café where family caregivers of loved ones with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive illnesses can socialize and find support. Though memory care cafés are popular in Europe and Australia, they’re less known in the States, and Amy’s Place is the first free-standing café in the country. Van Ahn discovered the useful community building idea online.
“Really, [the memory care café idea] just came up in a search,” Van Ahn tells Guideposts.org. “You could even download a toolkit on how to create one.”
The concept was first created by a Dutch psychiatrist, Dr. Bere Miesen, who noticed dementia was a taboo topic, even amongst family members. In 1977, he introduced the first memory care café in the Netherlands to make a safe space for caregivers to support one another.
That seed, planted over 40 years ago, traveled decades, and thousands of miles to reach Van Ahn during a crucial time in her own life. A Registered Nurse for 15 years, Van Ahn moved down south when her mother, with whom she was never particularly close, became ill. Van Ahn became her live-in caregiver and felt the effects of the job first-hand.
“It was scary,” Van Ahn says. “My mom was mean. She was mean to us her whole life but there are lots of those kinds of stories out there. We have to be very, very careful in the fingers that we're pointing at people who are caregivers when you hear these comments like, ‘Gosh. She's so mean to him,’ or, ‘She won't even visit him,’ or whatever. There's a reason for the behavior for people with Alzheimer's and there is a reason for a caregiver’s behavior too.”
Her mom passed a year later, and Van Ahn was left in the middle of a life crisis. She had moved her entire life to a different state and didn’t have a full-time job anymore. More than anything, after experiencing what it took to be a caregiver to someone with dementia, she wanted to help others weather that particular storm. She found Dr. Miesen’s idea interesting because it fulfilled a need she had been wanting to address for some time.
“We've done a really good job of bringing this thing called Alzheimer's disease out of the closet and trying to reduce the stigma,” Van Ahn says. “But where we are failing miserably is helping these caregiving families remain socially engaged.”
For a caregiver, social outings are greatly limited when providing round-the-clock care to a loved one.
“There are trips to the doctor's office,” Van Ahn says. “If you're lucky, maybe you get to go to Kroger or Publix. That's an outing to get groceries. They're just not involved, socially, anymore. Many of these families can't afford to be. You must pick and choose. Church? You can't even go to church anymore because the person with the disease is suddenly scared in the church that you've gone to for 30 or 40 years.”
When she was caring for her mother, Van Ahn would regularly attend support group meetings for caregivers, but she said even those felt lacking in ways. As educational and beneficial as they were, she didn’t want the precious time she had to herself to morph into more time on the clock.
“Ninety percent of everything that we do at this place called Amy's Place is social,” Van Ahn says. Her non-profit Caring Together in Hope, and Amy’s Place, the Memory Care Café, put on over 100 free events per year geared towards caregivers and their families, things like pizza parties, spa days, painting classes, along with more essential needs, like haircuts, free dental exams, eye exams, and hearing tests. They rely on donations and the help of local business to sponsor these events, to help provide transportation when necessary, and they usually take place at the café, a beautiful two-story home in historic downtown Roswell, just 20 minutes outside of Atlanta.
After researching Memory Care Cafes and reaching out to experts like Dr. Jytte Lokvig, an Alzheimer’s specialist who set up the first “pop-up” Memory Care Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Van Ahn knew she wanted to set up shop in a place that felt like home, one where caregivers and their loved ones could feel at ease. She applied for a 501c3, wrote grant proposals for endowments from local foundations, and met with the mayor of Roswell to ensure her nonprofit could be housed in the city.
“We didn't want it near a strip mall or anything medical, we wanted it in a neighborhood,” Van Ahn explains. She hopes the location alone can foster friendships and a feeling of community, which is the café’s biggest goal.
“When they're here, they're not talking about Alzheimer's or caregiving; these people are talking about their children, their grandchildren, the weather, stuff that you and I would talk about if we went out for lunch,” Van Ahn says.
And while the Café does offer educational resources and some financial aid, after surveying its members, Van Ahn found people visiting didn’t want more classes on how to be a good caregiver, they just wanted a change of scenery and some social interaction.
“There's a lot of great classes out there about how to be a good caregiver,” Van Ahn says. “That really is important to me, but it's less important to me than it was even five years ago. When we started this we thought, ‘This would be great for caregivers to come to,’ and the ultimate compliment, the most wonderful thing that happens here, is when these caregivers create new friendships that they made here. That's when you know that you have done something right.”