More than 10 years ago, Jytte Lokvig, PhD, was scanning the internet for additional information about dementia. On one of her Google searches she saw the words “Alzheimer’s Cafe” posted by Dr. Bere Miesen, who founded the first Alzheimer’s cafe in Leiden, the Netherlands in 1997. That phrase electrified her. She leapt out of her chair, much to the dismay of her cat, who was cozily sleeping across her feet, and declared, “I am going to make that happen in the U.S.!” She’d been working with people who were living with dementia in community settings for some years, orchestrating art, music, craft and other meaningful projects. But she felt something was missing. That something, she realized, was engagement in the community.
From that inspiration, Jytte created the original U.S. Alzheimer’s Cafe in Santa Fe, NM in 2008. Ten years later, there are more than 300 cafes in the US that invite creativity and connection through dementia friendly cafes.
Recently, Ron and I visited Jytte’s cafe.
“The word cafe denotes relaxation, companionship, a place where someone can go in and out without judgement,” Jytte says.
The Santa Fe Alzheimer’s Cafe is held in an accessible room in the Children’s Museum. Jytte designed her sessions for a small audience and offers a mixture of art projects, singing, jokes, unusual facts, pleasant conversation, and snacks.
Empowering people to make choices is an important component of Jytte’s cafe: so many people living with dementia don’t have the opportunity to choose. As people arrived, Jytte invited them to choose from an array of healthy snacks. For the art project, she offered a rock or a plate to paint on.
“Would you like a round plate of a square one?” she asked.
She had laid down dark green plastic so people could easily see their white plates against the green background. She squeezed bright acrylic paints into palettes and everyone began painting. One guest painted with her care partner, an activity they often do at home. Another guest instantly incorporated a rock, her palette, and her paper plate into a fascinating and colorful montage. Her best friend, Susan, delighted us all by bringing her African Grey Parrot, Cochiti, who perched on her head during the session and happily posed for photos and ate dried goldenberries.
While we painted, we talked, about art, our lives, the bird, and movies. We all loved movies and Susan told us that one of their Santa Fe theaters offered care partners and people living with dementia two tickets for the price of one. That is an example of one of the fascinating tidbits we learned at the cafe. (We are going to learn more about that program and see which of our wonderful theaters in KC want to offer that discount.)
“This intimate setting and small group creates a sense of family,” Jytte told us as we hugged everyone goodbye.
She was right. After only two hours, we felt connected to each of the attendees and we were sorry to have to part. But we were inspired to return home to Kansas City, with fresh ideas for our Cafe.
To set up a cafe atmosphere for an art project in your own home:
- Arrange a few snacks.
- Invite a guest or two, if you wish. This is an intergenerational project.
- Put a brightly colored plastic covering on the table.
- Squeeze some acrylic paint into a palette. Or use tempura or water colors.
- Offer a choice between two brushes.
- Offer a choice between two canvases: a cardboard paper plate, a river rock, paper, or other.
- Relax and let the painting unfold.
- If your loved ones need a little help, you can paint together. Or you can rest their hand on yours, while you paint to get them used to the movement of the brush.
- Appreciate the art by commenting on the color, the design, the shapes. Don’t ask them to identify the art: enjoy it as it is.
- Weave conversation into your time together.
For more information about Jytte and her work, visit :
Want to set up your own cafe? Consider Jytte’s book.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.