I AM 21, and have been attending memory café since its first days in 2016. It had been an amazing success. From humble beginnings, we had grown to welcoming 100 guests each week (Feature, 27 September 2019). But memory café is all about contact, and its members are elderly and vulnerable; Covid-19 puts elderly and vulnerable people at particular risk, and contact with others is dangerous. So, because of the pandemic, memory café had to close — and, to keep people safe, we actually closed a week before the official guidance took effect. We were heartbroken.
After the initial shock, and the realisation that we probably wouldn’t be able to reopen for many months, we began to hatch a plan. We started with a question: How can we take memory café to its users when they cannot come to us? We knew that there was a need, but we needed to find the means of meeting it.
It was complicated by the fact that many of our guests are not on the internet, and struggle with technology. Many of the older people are isolated and infirm; for some, their main carer lives with them. But the new kind of memory café which has now evolved won’t just plug some gaps: it is going to give the whole memory-café idea fresh legs and new horizons.
We wanted to make the “café” personal, so that people could engage in the ways that suited them. This mirrored the in-person memory café, at which people could pick and choose the activities they wanted to do on each visit. We began by phoning a small band of regulars and asking what kind of thing they would find useful. From this, five main options emerged:
- We could offer a weekly phone call to check in with people and to see how they were doing.
- We could support people to get online by offering advice through a phone call, and by sending printed tutorials, which we would then talk through on the phone.
- We could do weekly events on Zoom: quizzes, to begin with, but, subsequently, many other possibilities (such as singalongs and bingo).
- We could produce an entertainment pack containing quizzes and recipes and stories, which would be posted through the door.
- We would record a monthly radio show, which would be online or on CD.
THE next step was to call the 70 or so people whose details we had permission to hold and ask them which of these options appealed, and whether they wanted to take part. We were beginning to get very excited about what was happening. The feedback we have received so far has been overwhelmingly positive: some people are saying that it gave them something to look forward to; others, that it made their day.
It has been a riot of fun and joy, and the Zoom quizzes are a hoot. We have 25 members all connecting and getting excited over the web.
It takes a day or so to assemble the entertainment packs and either post them or deliver them by hand. The first radio show is in progress, and a well-known composer has given us some music that he has recorded for the show. We have commissioned a jingle, and we are recording interviews with all kinds of people who have been involved with memory café — including our exercise instructor.
The weekly calls are a lifeline, and people love having someone to talk to. I genuinely love their company. There is no substitute for friendship, and that is what used to make memory café so good. Putting the packs together has allowed us to draw on people’s talents. One of our members is writing short stories about the ups and downs of life (this month, a rat arriving in her home). Others are giving us a recipe, which we design up. There are gardening tips, and advice about where to get help if people are in trouble (we’ve linked up with national organisations on this).
We feared that memory café was dead, but now we think that this might not just help us bring it back to life, but may be an even more accessible way of meeting the need. Memory café at home is just one expression of doing love at a distance. The method has been quite simple, and we see no reason that it couldn’t be used for all sorts of remote groups.
And one more thing. We want to spread this, and make all the materials and learning available to all, free of charge. So do contact us, and we can get you started. Email us at email@example.com. We can help you to get started with a new kind of memory café.
Emily Morris is the Memory Café at Home project leader.
Get started It may be months before we can restart memory cafés or any similar clubs — our contacts at the charities who work with elders tell us that it will be April at the earliest. There is a need right now.
Get the safeguarding right Make sure you have permission to use addresses and other details, and that you store everything securely.
Try to personalise Ask people what they want, and then give it to them.
Add personality This is your chance to put together a pack that reflects your people and your place; so be as creative as you like.
Be aware of technical limitations Make available both a phone and a postal version.
Do it with joy Embrace the chaos.
Use other people’s resources to keep costs down There’s lots of good stuff out there.
Charge for anything We raised some funds from donations to start us off.
Ignore those who aren’t on the internet You can offer a very rich experience online and off.
Forget to have fun Don’t worry if it all goes a bit off the wall.
Underestimate the time it is going to take Just ringing round might take a few days.
Expect it to be the same as your old memory café This will take you into new areas.