Ron Helgeson met his wife, Diane, while dropping off a friend at a party she was hosting. Though Ron didn’t know many people there, Diane invited him inside. They talked a little — not much, Ron recalled, but enough for him to ask a mutual friend about her later and get her number.
The Helgesons have been married for 57 years. They live in Hopkins, where in 2015 they were crowned senior king and queen of the city’s Raspberry Festival. Shortly afterward, Diane was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Ron likens the experience to a book he read recently, “My Two Elaines,” about the wife of former Wisconsin Gov. Martin Schreiber and her battle with Alzheimer’s.
“There’s two people I’m dealing with,” Helgeson said. “My wife that I know, and my wife that I don’t know.”
He shared his thoughts with 25 other people Tuesday during Hopkins’ second ever memory cafe, a support and socializing event designed both for adults with dementia and their caregivers — “because both are living with the disease,” said Peggy Gaard, director of adult day services at Augustana Open Circle in Hopkins.
Helgeson discovered the memory cafe through the local activity center and decided to check it out. The Hopkins Memory Café, held once a month at the local branch of the Hennepin County Library, is organized by Augustana and ACT on Alzheimer’s, a statewide collaborative to improve conditions for adults with the disease. Some of the funding for the Hopkins cafe came out of a $14,000 grant from ACT on Alzheimer’s.
BillieJo Armstrong, Augustana’s admissions and marketing director, said the cafe is a community-based program.
“The key is to hold it somewhere where there’s no affiliation,” Armstrong said. Other memory cafes are hosted by senior centers, like the Hastings Memory Café, or churches, like the one at Epworth United Methodist in St. Paul.
Armstrong leads the Hopkins Memory Café with Gaard, who said it’s great for spreading information. One resource Gaard said she likes to share with attendees is respite care at Augustana, where caregivers can drop off loved ones for six hours to take a break for themselves. Gaard said she sees up to 55 adults daily.
“Sometimes caregivers feel — especially spouses — totally responsible and that it’s their obligation to give care,” Gaard said. “But they need to have some breaks as well.”
Memory cafes started in Europe in the 1990s, and according to Armstrong began popping up in the United States a little less than a decade ago. Arthur’s Memory Cafe in Roseville, held twice a month at J. Arthur’s Coffee Shop, was one of the first in the country, said Lori La Bey, founder of both Arthur’s and the Alzheimer’s Speaks resource website.
Gaard said she visited Arthur’s while doing research for the Hopkins cafe, after she and Armstrong noticed there weren’t any memory cafes in the west metro. They decided that the Hopkins cafe should meet from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month because that time posed the least number of conflicts with other such metro area cafes.
“People like to go to different ones,” Armstrong said. “There are a number of couples that are going to every one they can find.”
A website, Memorycafedirectory.com, has a list of different cafes offered throughout the country, including the ones in Minnesota like Hopkins’.
“It’s a place where people find that support,” Gaard said. “And that recognition that yes, this is the disease I have and this is the path I’m on, and … this is not my whole life.”
Emily Allen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.