‘Memory Cafes’ connect caregivers and loved ones living with dementia

‘Memory Cafes’ connect caregivers and loved ones living with dementia
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Amanda Thomas ’14 agonized as she watched her grandmother endure the profound challenges of living with dementia.

“I watched my aunt take on the important role of a caregiver and something in me changed during that time period,” Thomas said. “I knew what I was supposed to do.”

In her early 30s and expecting her first child, Thomas enrolled in the School of Social Work at UNC Charlotte. She still credits her grandmother for giving her the extra push to get her degree.

“I felt and still feel to this day that my grandmother was guiding me to become the person I was always meant to be, although she had lost the ability to speak,” she said.

After graduating with honors, Thomas got a job as director of social services with the Brian Center in Charlotte. She now works with the Council on Aging in Union County. She is an Alzheimer's Association-Western Carolina "Walk to End Alzheimer's" Marketing and Communications Committee member and a certified dementia practitioner and a Seniors' Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) certified counselor. 

One of her first projects was to start so-called “memory cafés.”  It’s a nontraditional approach to a support group, where people with dementia and their caregivers can connect with others by participating in social and physical activities.

For example, some of the in-person memory cafés Thomas organized included Alzheimer’s Authors hosting a book reading and book signing, a holiday party with Santa and Mrs. Claus and Canvas Paintings. 

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas had to find a way to keep the program going in a remote fashion. She arranged virtual tours of Tiger World and Sea Life Aquarium, both in Concord, North Carolina, and the James K. Polk Historic Site.

Another virtual cafe was a tour of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, hosted by director Jeff Gillman.

Every organization has been more than willing to accommodate and are excited to help in any way they can to help make a difference in someone’s day,” Thomas said. “Jeff Gilman was no exception.  I reached out to him, and he was more than accommodating and scheduled a tour on the spot.”

“He virtually led us through every room of the greenhouse to educate viewers on plants and flowers,” she said. “His charm and passion for what he does is apparent, and I still get positive feedback from that presentation.”

For his part, Gillman said: “Our mission is to bring the world of plants to people. This was a very natural fit for us, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to make plants relevant to this group of people. We like it when people want us to share our passion.”

The sensory nature of the “memory cafes” is therapeutic, Thomas said. “It’s important for caregivers and their loved one to stay mentally, physically, and socially active to offset the effects of isolation,” she said.

Thomas credits her education with preparing her for her career path.

“I will forever be thankful for the guidance and patience shown to me by all social work professors throughout my studies at UNC Charlotte,” she said. “When learning of my passion to advocate for the elderly, all professors allowed me the opportunity to tailor my assignments and internship to learn, grow and network as much as I could in the health care field for our senior population.”