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05 Nov 2014

Know Your Neighbors: The Dementia-Friendly Café Creates a Safe Space for Everyone Involved With Alzheimer's, Similar Afflictions

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The first Dementia-Friendly Cafe drew a large crowd to PF Chang's. The first Dementia-Friendly Cafe drew a large crowd to PF Chang's. Courtesy of Pamela Bieri

How do you start up something new? No matter how worthy the cause, you need individuals who see a need and are willing to volunteer a substantial amount of time to satisfy that need.

A local coalition has cropped up committed to creating a “Dementia-Friendly Coachella Valley,” composed of individuals who represent local nonprofit organizations, those diagnosed with or caring for someone with a dementia-related disease (like Alzheimer’s), medical professionals and interested citizens.

The DF-CV group recently sponsored the first Dementia-Friendly Café as a way to expand awareness that those living with a diagnosis of a dementia-related disease are still able to enjoy life, socialize and be in a public setting without fear. They wanted to create a “safe space” in which people could come together for a purely social event.

What is a safe space? To me, it’s a place where one can be truly oneself, relaxed and able to be fully expressive without fear of ridicule, judgment, embarrassment or stigmatization based on sex, race, ethnicity, orientation, religion, age, physical disability or any other arbitrary characteristic.

Cathy Greenblat, author of Love, Loss, and Laughter—Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently, was the catalyst for the coalition after the exhibit in Palm Desert of her remarkable photographs of patients with dementia-related diseases in state-of-the-art treatment facilities.

Dee Wieringa, executive director of the new Stonewall Gardens in Palm Springs, made the arrangements for the café with Albert Morales, manager at PF Chang's China Bistro at The River. Morales was enthusiastic about the idea.

“Our company is always telling us to get involved with our community,” he said.

A dining room at the restaurant would be set aside from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Those attending could order off the menu if they chose to, get drinks at the bar, or just socialize with others who could relate.

Rupert Macnee, a filmmaker who lives in Rancho Mirage, did the first draft of a flier. With minimal tweaking, it was ready to distribute online, at hospital rounds and on counters and bulletin boards at businesses and organizations throughout the Coachella Valley.

Pat Kaplan, of Palm Desert, one of the honorary co-chairs of the 15th annual Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s, came up with the idea of coalition participants wearing purple ribbons, typically an Alzheimer’s disease symbol, so those attending the café would know whom to ask if they had questions or concerns. She greeted attendees warmly, and generally acted as the unofficial hostess.

Other coalition participants who worked the room included Anne Gimbel, regional director of the Alzheimer’s Association; John Wisor, of Palm Springs; Kae Hammond, executive director of the Dementia Help Center and the author of a definitive book, Pathways: A Guidebook for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Family Caregivers (if you need answers and guidance, this is THE book); Soo Borson, a geriatric psychiatrist; and yours truly, who prints nicely and thus did the name tags.

The expectation was that if we could turn out 15 to 20 people on our first outing, that would be a good start. We wanted to learn what the community needs—and what the community will respond to—when it comes to the potentially touchy subject of dementia. Imagine our surprise when more than 50 people showed up! The staff at Chang’s brought in extra tables, added another waitperson, and generally made it a good experience. People were sitting with others they didn’t already know, making new acquaintances, sharing stories and laughing. There was a lot of laughing.

Two women who attended came alone, without their husbands who are living with dementia-related diagnoses. The wives, being sensitive to what their husbands might require, wanted to make sure it would be a safe space. They were thrilled and plan to bring their husbands to the next café. Other attendees included people from all over the valley, ranging in age from their 40s to their 80s—daughters and sons, caregivers, spouses and live-in partners, gay and straight, long-time and new desert residents. It was a noisy, fun, purely social couple of hours with good food, good company and the comfort of a safe space. One attendee described it as “warm and fuzzy.”

The next Dementia-Friendly Café is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 3, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Chang’s. Morales is eagerly looking forward to making everyone comfortable, and the coalition members are planning to spread the word far and wide.

How do you start something new? You come together with people who know how to get things done—people who genuinely care about the issue you’re addressing, people who make time in busy schedules, people who are your neighbors. When’s the last time you got involved in something new?

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

1 comment

  • Comment Link Beverlee Stone-Goodman Thursday, 06 November 2014 14:01 posted by Beverlee Stone-Goodman

    It would be nice if communities all over the map created a "warm and fuzzy" safe place where people with similar afflictions could enjoy. Bravo Anita Rufus for your commitment to such a meaningful cause. You are to be commended along with all the other caring volunteers committed to this special undertaking.

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