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Memory cafe to fill unmet social, emotional needs of dementia

Renita Thonvold, left, and Kathy Thonvold are co-facilitators of the Forget-Me-Knot Memory Cafe, opening this week to help people with dementia and their caregivers find support, information and friendship. Anne Polta/Tribune

WILLMAR—As part of their homework for starting a memory cafe in Willmar, Kathy Thonvold and Renita Thonvold visited Arthur's Memory Cafe in Roseville earlier this year.

The gathering of people with dementia and their caregivers was social, inspiring and frank. Far from being reticent, people talked openly about the frustrations of living with cognitive and memory loss.

When one of the regular members didn't show up that day, everyone noticed. They worried, then mobilized an effort to try to find him.

Organizers of the Forget-Me-Knot Memory Cafe being launched this month in Willmar hope to create a similar community—one where people with memory loss can be supported, find common ground and enhance their social and emotional well-being.

"I think this is something that this community needs," said Kathy Thonvold.

To introduce the new memory cafe to the public, an open house will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday in the second-floor community room at the Willmar Public Library.

Going forward, the cafe will be open twice a month, from 2 to 4 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursday of each month in the community room at the library. It's free of charge for individuals and caregivers in Kandiyohi County who are living with dementia.

The memory cafe is a project of the West Central Dementia Awareness Network, a mostly volunteer group that has been working since 2009 to help raise the level of dementia-related education and support in Kandiyohi County.

There's some urgency. As the large baby boom generation ages, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease is expected to more than double by 2050. It's estimated that nearly 1,900 residents of Kandiyohi County currently have Alzheimer's, and almost 10 percent of them live alone.

The Dementia Awareness Network is active on many fronts, from training local businesses to better serve customers with dementia to outreach among Kandiyohi County's communities of color. Its efforts were recently boosted with a year-long grant from the Minnesota Board on Aging.

One of the most pressing needs, however, also is often one of the least recognized: peer connections and support for people with dementia themselves.

Most support groups tend to focus on caregiver needs, leaving people with dementia, especially in the earlier stages, with few outlets for socializing, learning about local resources or venting their fears and frustrations in a safe environment.

Friends often drop out of sight once someone is diagnosed with dementia, Kathy Thonvold said. "All of a sudden they become so much more isolated," she said.

The Forget-Me-Knot Memory Care aims to help fill this gap. (No, the name isn't misspelled; it reflects the hope of the organizers that the group will become a tight-knit circle of friends.)

The memory cafe concept arose in The Netherlands in the late 1990s and has since spread across Europe and then to the United States. It's catching on in Minnesota, where a handful of memory cafes have opened in recent years.

Kathy Thonvold and Renita Thonvold—the two women are sisters-in-law and have personal and professional experience with dementia—will facilitate the new Forget-Me-Knot Memory Cafe.

They said the twice-monthly meetings over coffee and treats will be many things: a chance to talk to others facing the same challenges, an opportunity to give and receive support, and a few hours of normalcy in lives that often are otherwise focused on disease and disability.

Speakers might be invited in or there might be a musical program, Kathy Thonvold said. "It'll be what the members want."

The two women also see it as a resource for helping connect people with information and services they might need.

"It's not that we have all the answers," Renita Thonvold said. "But if they have questions or are looking for information, we as facilitators can direct them."

The biggest worry for organizers of the memory cafe is that fear of stigma will keep people away. As the word spreads of the cafe's upcoming opening, however, Kathy Thonvold and Renita Thonvold say they're encouraged by the positive response.

If the group becomes larger than 15 or 16 people, it's hoped that a second memory cafe can be started, they said.

"So many people have said they feel there's a need," Kathy Thonvold said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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