ON THE morning of our first memory café here at St Cuthbert’s, in North Wembley, I remember praying, “Lord, if we could just have four or five visitors. . .” That day, 12 people attended, and, by the end of the session, I knew that we had a winner on our hands: something so simple and life-changing that it was going to change the way in which we did church.
We had decided very quickly to set up our memory café in response to two things. A long-standing member of our congregation was suffering with dementia; her plight touched us, as did the selfless love of her husband and son, who were caring for her. And our church was, at that stage, shut for most of the week. We knew that there was an ocean of loneliness and pain out there, and we wanted to do something about it. We wanted something simple, cheap to run, and that would make a quick impact.
Memory café fitted the bill because, at its most basic, it is beautifully simple. All you need is a kettle, a quiz (we make them up ourselves), and a heart for people. Our café is now a multi-faceted weekly event (we open 51 weeks of the year); but that simple idea and structure — hospitality, warmth, and a chance to get the brain working — are still at its heart.
WE STARTED with a small group of volunteers, put up a poster outside the church, and hoped — and prayed — for the best. We have always kept the publicity side simple. We occasionally print and deliver flyers to our local estate, and we use our church website to publicise the café. That’s it.
We did some work to make the church hospitable and café-like. We turned on the heating, so that people were never cold. We bought some round tables, and added tablecloths, so that it seemed friendly. We got a stack of free-papers, so that people could read if they felt a bit shy.
We decided early on not to faff around with rotas: instead, we have a team of about six people who come every week (unless they are on holiday). We keep the jobs easy: someone to be the greeter, someone to run the quiz and MC the event, others to do the refreshments.
Midway through our first session, I heard a sound that has come to be synonymous with the memory café: laughter. I knew then that it would only grow.
Seated exercise class
These days, we get 100 people a week, and a session rarely goes by without other churches visiting to see how it’s done, and to get some inspiration to set up their own.
Our café now includes a weekly, seated exercise session, run by a trainer. We also offer simple food: cakes (homemade) and pastries, supplied free of charge by a local Sikh charity. The cafe also includes a choir (led by our local estate agent, and a pianist). Our entry requirement is simply that you are still breathing — you don’t need to be able to sing. When we perform at events, there is barely a dry eye in the house.
The training and the choir have had health benefits for those attending. People say that they are fitter than they have been for years, and the choir raises the spirits. We find that when people have lost the ability to speak, they can still sing. It is most touching.
THERE have been surprises along the way. We thought that we would have mainly attract guests who were suffering with dementia. These days, we get a real mix. About half of those attending are people from the area, usually aged over 60, who love the company and sense of community. If you look on the gathering any week, you will see the ethnic diversity of Brent represented: many Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus attend. This is a great joy to us, and many friendships have been forged.
People tell us that the café has single-handedly created a sense of community on the estate where we are based. I think this is true. We thought that the café was going to tackle one hurt: dementia. It has, in fact, tackled others as well: isolation, loneliness, and the need for a place where people know your name and care for you. (We are a bit like that famous TV bar in Boston, Cheers: the place where everybody knows your name.)
It has surprised us that the café means so much to people. In some way, their hope gets tied up in it; and we feel a great sense of responsibility. I sometimes feel this as a weight.
Guests at the memory café
Has it all been plain sailing? We have certainly had to learn lessons. We take great care to check each week for any potential health-and-safety disasters. One of our volunteers patrols the café looking for slip, trip, and fall hazards.
The hardest thing of all has been seeing the sheer devastation of dementia, and coping when people have died along the way. We miss the friends we have made, and the emotional toll for volunteers when one of our guests dies can be quite heavy.
MEMORY café is something that any church or organisation can set up. It needn’t be in a church (there’s a brilliant one in Northolt, west London, in the pub). It doesn’t cost much, and the potential for getting grants is high. It is one of those simple big ideas that has the power to run and run.
Memory café has made us think differently about church, mission, and evangelism. More than just a Sunday service, I now see blessing the community as something that church should do as a first priority. As Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, says in the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in London.
www.memcafe.org (our website) to help you set up your café.
Volunteers at the memory café
- get started, and don’t over-plan: set a date and work towards it;
- arrange your church like a café: round tables, music, snacks;
- run every week if you can, otherwise people forget when you are open;
- keep the structure simple: e.g. welcome, quiz, singing;
- be flexible: if a choir won’t work for you, add something else — craft, bingo, board games. Work with the resources and talents that you have;
- focus on the atmosphere of joy and fun. Don’t take the quiz too seriously — it doesn’t matter who wins;
- learn people’s names, and always have time to listen to their stories.
- charge for anything: free food and drink send an important message that this is our offering to people (it’s fine to leave out a bowl for voluntary donations);
- run over time: start and end promptly, or your volunteers will get exhausted;
- make it complicated: it is easy to over-engineer the session — resist, and be as simple as you can;
- don’t offer lifts, or hot food: be clear about the café’s limits, and reduce the risk of things going wrong;
- become too medicalised: it is easy to fill the time with talks on health issues and other practical things — we prefer to keep the sessions as an unexpected outpouring of joy.