It’s estimated that there are more than five million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to grow as the population ages. One of the major problems associated with the disease is isolation, both for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. A Seattle program provides them a place to socialize and find support.
Wolfgang and Inge Hesse have been married for more than 59 years. They’ve been coming to the Alzheimer’s Café since the program started last year. They look forward to this monthly get-together. Inge says her husband’s mental condition has made it hard for them to go out these days, even for a quick bite.
“It’s kind of getting messy now,” Inge says. “I cut everything into little pieces, otherwise he takes big pieces in his mouth and he starts choking.”
But for two hours each month, the Hesses can hang out with other couples at this Greenwood coffee shop. Inge says, here, they don’t have to worry about what other people think. “You know, you share all the same things, they’re all dementia. That’s real nice.”
The theme this month is Valentine’s Day. There are red and pink candies on each table. A volunteer with a guitar leads the group in a series of love songs.
Carin Mack is a geriatric social worker at the Greenwood Senior Center. She organizes the Alzheimer’s Café. She says families dealing with dementia struggle with isolation in part because of the way some people perceive the disease. It reminds her of how people used to think of cancer.
“When people hear Alzheimer’s they kind of back away a little bit and they’re very uncomfortable," she says. "And so very often the spouse will say to me, 'you know, I just don’t see those couples anymore. They’re uncomfortable, they don’t come around anymore.'”
The idea of a social gathering for people with Alzheimer’s has its roots in Europe. The first café in the US started in New Mexico, and the concept is slowly catching on. The Greenwood program is the first in the Seattle area. Another one just started in Bothell.
For regulars like Inge and her husband, the Alzheimer's Café is more than just a social outlet. They’ve made friends here. Over pie and coffee, they do some catching up, share jokes, and give each other encouragement.