Rosenblum: Memory Cafe helps couples hold on as long as possible

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2013 - 8:11 PM

Valentine's Day still is three weeks away, but this love story can't wait.

Six couples gathered Wednesday over coffee and cookies at J. Arthur's coffee shop in Roseville. They laughed, took playful digs at one another, passed around photos of grand-kids and talked about marvelous trips taken to China and South Africa.

And, because they knew they could, they shared worries about uncertain futures.

"She's had a pretty rapid decline in the last year," said Tom Hemstreet, 56, of his wife, Karen Cassidy, 58. Karen draws applause after she pronounces her name. Tom does pretty much everything for Karen now, including bathing.

"I'm George's wife," said Anne Seiler, 69, of Little Canada.

"Your name, honey," George, 70, coaches gently.

These couples are participating in a new concept gathering steam across the country, called Memory Cafes. The cafes, some offering light fare, others bringing in speakers or activities, offer couples a haven to escape the caregiver-care receiver roles they've plummeted into due to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. For two hours twice a month, they get to be a couple again.

"We laugh, we tell stories," said Marlene Tolzman, 77, attending with husband, Bill, 72. "It's not really a serious, sad thing. It's a fun thing, which is why we like it."

Daily life for these couples has gotten serious. Nine years ago, Bill took a shower after mowing the lawn on a hot summer day. After supper, he told Marlene that he needed to take a shower. Suddenly, Marlene realized all sorts of things that Bill was forgetting. "Now, I mostly watch over him," she said.

She doesn't have to at J. Arthur's Memory Cafe. Launched in 2011 by Lori La Bey, it is among the first in the country. Over the past year or so, another 50 have sprung up nationwide due to desperate need.

About 5.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. By 2050, the number is expected to be 16 million. Many couples can tell you the sadness of watching friends and family members slip away one by one.

"Memory loss makes people uncomfortable," said La Bey, founder of Alzheimer's Speaks (www.alzheimersspeaks.com), a business creating new approaches to dementia care. "So they often disappear from the person's life."

As many as 20 people meet on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month from 1 to 3 p.m. at no charge. Today, after a regular check-in around the table, they get a lesson in moving meditation, t'ai chi chih, from trainer Judy George.

"Remember not to reach too far," George says, her advice carrying profound double meaning. "Take a small step. In our culture, we're always in a hurry. We want to be present. In the moment."

Memory cafes began in England, funded by the government. La Bey joined forces with ACR Healthcare Group, Alzheimer's Research Center, the Minnesota Memory Project and HealthPartners to jump-start one here.

Word is getting out. Two new couples arrive on this day. One woman, pushed into the room in a wheelchair by her husband, is in hospice. Still, the mood is more often light, bordering on giddy.

Bill Tolzman says his best days are Tuesdays and Thursdays, which he spends at an adult day program. "Those are my best days, too," Marlene jokes.

Hemstreet and Cassidy are far younger than most participants but are grateful to be here. "I don't think I've ever been as close to a group," Hemstreet said. He and Cassidy have been together for 15 years and married for four. She used to run half-marathons. Now their lives are filled with frustrations and apologies.

"You're a guy but, here, you can show your soft side and everybody understands."

George Seiler stumbled upon the cafe while having coffee there one day. Anne was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2008 and has faced increasing memory loss and confusion since last summer. "Annie was a take-charge gal," he said.

The cafe offers her safe space to remember that about herself. "We don't want to miss it," he said. "I really enjoy it when I watch Annie enjoying herself."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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