Bringing out great memories

Seven years ago, Marjorie Hammond’s life changed when her husband George was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Though the Upland resident has never wavered in her decision to be her husband’s full-time caregiver, she admits that every day has been a challenge. It has been particularly difficult to witness the subtle changes in her husband’s ability to complete daily tasks, she shared. Ms. Hammond struggled with watching her husband, an avid motorist who “drove everywhere,” lose his ability to drive.

While the load has been burdensome, a new program offered through Claremont’s Community Senior Services is helping the Hammonds cope with the changes. Amid their lives’ unpredictable ups and downs, the Hammonds have found a constant in Yesteryear’s Cafe, a monthly meetup where those suffering from memory loss and their loved ones interact with others in the same situation. The result is a fraternity of people who understand one another and provide additional ways to cope with the difficulties of the destructive disease.

“It’s comforting to know I’m not alone,” Ms. Hammond said.  

Yesteryear’s Cafe, or “memory cafes”  as they are often called, put a spin on the traditional support group format. Instead of offering separate meetings for those with cognitive impairment while caregivers attend an information session, patients and caregivers interact together, participating in social activities like singing or dancing.

“Very often, people who take care of those with dementia don’t really know what to do. There are a lot of anger issues and miscommunications, and they no longer know how to engage,” explained Angelika Pittet, director of the local Yesteryear’s Cafe. “This gives them something meaningful to do together.”

Finding purposeful work is important for those suffering from memory loss, Ms. Pittet noted.

“As they start to feel out of control of certain aspects of their life, it is important for them to find activities that help them feel needed, things they feel they can participate in,” she said.

With that in mind, Ms. Pittet and cafe participants have set to work assembling 50 emergency kits for isolated seniors in the community, packing them with supplies like water bottles and food. Encouraged by the success of that program, Ms. Pittet looks forward to expanding community service programming in the future.

Ms. Pittet likes to switch it up. While the coffee and the pastries are a constant, participants may be dancing one day and hunched over a table playing a board game the next. On Thursday, Claremont Place was filled with the sweet sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s as cafegoers were reminded on the music and dancing of their past. Music is a powerful tool for recalling memory, Ms. Pittet noted.

“Even those in the deepest stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia can relate to music. I have seen someone who hasn’t spoken for 2 years start to sing along to a song,” she said.

With some musical accompaniment, and Claremont resident Peggy Robertson’s gift for singing, Ms. Pittet helped café members recall their past through music in order to assist with the difficulties of memory loss in the present.

Ms. Robertson, who is now facing the first stages of dementia, enjoys fostering her social spirit with the group and keeping her mind sharp. She used to love putting on her dancing shoes and going dancing at the local YMCA with her friends, she shared. In fact, that’s how she met her husband. When not dancing, Ms. Robertson enjoys staying active, whether in the garden, at the piano or with family, shared daughter Ann Hanson. So Yesteryear’s Cafe holds a dual purpose for the involved Claremonter, allowing her to foster her social spirit while helping keep her mind sharp.

Cafe meetups have given La Verne resident Henry Solis and his wife Catherine the ability to spend quality time together. Mr. Solis has played an active part in caring for his wife since she was diagnosed with dementia about 8 years ago, and says he has noticed a remarkable difference in his wife’s alertness since she began participating in the cafe activities. They meetings have helped him, too.

“I want to spend as much time with her as I can,” he said. “Before, I used to go to work and come home and go to bed. When I found out [about the dementia], I quit my job so I could spend more time with her.”

Ms. Pittet hopes to foster interactions between those with memory loss and their caregivers, whether through an idea picked up from a class or a game that participants can take home with them.

“It’s all about outside-the-box thinking—hands-on and visual clues that help create personal interactions,” Ms. Pittet shared.

It’s also about breaking down walls when it comes to caring for those with cognitive impairment. While Ms. Hammond admits every day brings something new and sometimes unexpected, the difference is she now feels prepared for the challenge.

“I feel much more comfortable with what’s happening to my husband, and I’ve seen a difference,” Ms. Hammond said. “The people here are so wonderful, they will call him by name and he may look at them blankly because he doesn’t remember their name, but his face just lights up.”

Yesteryear’s Cafe meets at 10:30 a.m. on the second Thursday of every month at Claremont Place, 120 W. San Jose Ave. The meeting is free and all are invited to attend. Sign up by calling 447-5259.

—Beth Hartnett


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