By her own account, Heather Sawitsky wears many hats at Fox Hill Village, a retirement community in Westwood. Not only does she serve as the community’s general counsel, she has also been the driving force behind White Oak Cottages, an assisted-living facility on the campus for people with memory loss.
Sawitsky’s latest focus at the facility is Memory Café, an informal opportunity for people with memory loss as well as their caregivers to socialize, connect, and share their experiences. White Oak Cottages will launch its first Memory Café this week in Westwood Public Library. The initiative is just one component of a larger community outreach strategy in Westwood and neighboring towns.
“We see families who are caring for someone with memory loss, and we can’t help them at this moment,” said Sawitsky, noting that White Oak Cottages is currently operating at capacity with 24 residents. “We were talking about ways in which we could reach out to the larger community, and decided that we would do an initiative to better educate people in the town.”
The inspiration for that initiative came from overseas, Sawitsky said in an interview. Memory or Alzheimer’s cafés are especially popular in the United Kingdom, where they are actively promoted by the National Health Service.
“It’s started to make its way across the waters,” said Sawitsky. “There are memory cafés scattered across the country. There aren’t many, but we’re hoping there will be more.”
Jewish Family & Children’s Services hosts a Memory Café on the first Friday of every month at its headquarters in Waltham. Wenham Museum started its own version last March.
“The general concept is for people to connect with each other in a nonclinical setting,” said Mary Barthelmes, Wenham Museum’s marketing manager. “It’s a place where they can really enjoy their life and be in the present.”
Wenham Museum’s Memory Café often makes use of its 17th-century facility to stimulate conversation between attendees. With an extensive collection of vintage toys and model trains, the cafe’s organizers hope they’ll be able to trigger childhood memories for some of their guests.
“I think it’s probably the most valued program we’ve done,” said Barthelmes.
According to Sawitsky, some memory cafés are structured around activities, while others are purely social. She said she wasn’t sure which form Westwood’s program will take, noting that it’s likely to change over time.
“It depends on what people want,” she said. “It may well change from month to month. It’s always nice to have something new to offer.”
Sawitsky stressed that memory cafés aren’t just for the people suffering from memory less, but also those who care for them. “Just getting out to do something so that they have a shared positive experience with their loved ones is very important,” she said. “Caregivers end up spending much more time at home than they’re used to, which can be difficult.”
Kirstin Braga, social media strategist for White Oak Cottages, said memory cafés are something of a departure for the two-year-old assisted-living facility, which has typically focused on support groups.
“People with dementia typically shy away from that kind of thing,” said Braga. “They feel like it’s more talking to them rather than letting them share their experiences, which is what our Memory Café aims to do.
‘It’s a place where they can really enjoy their life and be in the present.’
“Alzheimer’s is a very stigmatized disease,” she added. “Actually people at early stages are very social, very with it. It’s important for them to keep active. The more they’re around people, the better it is.”
According to Braga, the team at White Oak Cottages is looking to offer training sessions to various groups in the community, from clergy and first responders to local retailers. Each training session will be tailored to the needs of the specific group.
“We’re working with the town of Westwood to complete this side of our outreach,” said Braga. “We want people suffering from memory loss to feel that they’re more in tune with their community.”
The memory café and other community initiatives by White Oak Cottages constitute an appeal to people who live at home, especially those in the early to mid stages of memory loss.
“They become very self-conscious early on,” said Sawitsky. “They repeat themselves and may not be able to hold onto a conversation, and they’re very aware of it. They tend to not want to expose themselves by leaving the house.”
Memory cafés offer a safe environment for people dealing with memory loss, she said. “We’re not trying to do any diagnoses or give lectures. It’s just for pure enjoyment.”
The first Memory Café hosted by White Oak Cottages will be held at the library on Tuesday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The event is free, though a caregiver must be in attendance for guests requiring personal care assistance.William Holt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wb_holt.