Sheffield memory cafe: ‘It means the world to so many of us’
“It’s very hard living with dementia. One of the hardest things I found was she said to me one day ‘who are you?’ It’s really hard to understand that they don’t recognise you anymore. But we came three times a week and she was just so happy when she was here,” Gordon Anderson, who visits the memory cafe on Parson Cross, said.
Gordon and his wife Anne visited the group based at Parson Cross Forum, Margetson Crescent, for 10 months. They celebrated 52 years of marriage this year, just a week before Anne died.
He said: “It’s been absolutely brilliant. The pleasure it brought to my wife was just unbelievable. She had dementia and other problems as well but she loved coming here and it’s the only time I’ve ever known her dance.
“Now she’s passed on I just don’t know what I’d do without the support from the cafe and everyone who comes here.
“To come here and remember all the memories we made here and the photographs we had taken just makes you feel better.”
For Gordon, and many others, the group – funded by the National Lottery Community Fund – has changed their lives for the better, providing a free, joyful, welcoming and social place for people living with memory loss, dementia or experiencing loneliness.
Exotic animals, dancing, professional singers, weekend holidays away, bingo, robot touch responding cats and an opportunity to chat and make new friends are just some of the things they get up to. They are even looking forward to their first ever drag show next month.
Gordon said: “It was very difficult before we started coming to the cafe. We were told about this place and she didn’t really want to come at first but we came and then she started to enjoy it and got on really well with everyone here. She loved it.
“I think the atmosphere here is just absolutely wonderful. They never let you be on your own, they say ‘come over here and let’s have a laugh and a joke’ so it’s really good.”
On average around 20 to 50 people attend. Sessions are run by project co-ordinators ‘the two Louises’, a pair of passionate local women whose enthusiasm and love for their job is reflected in everything they do. There is one other member of staff and around 20 volunteers.
Louise Ashmore said: “We get as much out of it as they do. If some people here didn’t come they wouldn’t see anyone all week. Being in between four walls can be very dangerous for people, physically, mentally and socially. Social isolation and loneliness are two of the biggest killers. We love our job because we believe in what we do and make a difference, even if it’s just small.”
Louise Askew added: “I hope there’s something in the community like this when I get old and need help and support. I think it’s so important.”
Mary Coupland has gone to been a regular at the memory cafe since it started and now visits every Monday, Tuesday and Friday. “They brought me out of my shell. I never used to talk to people but anybody here will tell you now I’ve got verbal diarrhoea. I owe them a lot. I just love it, I love the atmosphere, I love the girls, the help - everything. It means the world to so many of us now.”
Many said it was the one place they felt comfortable enough to dance and it also provided a rest for those caring for someone with memory loss.
Maureen Cole visits with her husband Ken, who has Alzheimer’s, and takes it in turns with other relatives to come with him as they all enjoy it so much. She said: “Everybody is so friendly, the music makes a big difference to people - my husband would have never got up and danced and now he gets up and really enjoys it, he looks forward to it and I look forward to it.
“It’s getting harder for me and I do get pretty stressed out. He thinks he has another home and he doesn’t look at me as his wife, I’m his carer and he’ll say things like ‘what time is your husband picking you up? Does he mind you coming here and looking after me?’. I can’t make him understand I’m his wife. But when he’s with other people he’s alright. He’s a different person when he’s here and he loves it.”
Derek Smith and his wife Patricia, who has Alzheimer’s, have been attending for a couple of years and, like a number of others, visit other similar sessions across the city but said this was ‘the best’ in Sheffield.
Derek said: “I think they deserve a medal. Pat can’t move about much now and she doesn’t talk a lot either but it gives me a break at the same time as it gets us out and doing things while we still can. We mostly use it for company, we haven’t got much family so we don’t see a lot of people.
“Pat’s alright, she’s not bad at all. She has her moments but all people with Alzheimer’s do, some a lot worse. A lot of people wander and some are violent but Pat’s not like that, she’s usually agreeable most of the time.
“She needs 24 hour care but she just sits there and watches me wash all the pots up but you know, that’s how it goes. We’ve been married 58 years and always looked after each other in the past so it’s not a lot different now. As long as I keep looking after her that’s good enough.”
Lots of work goes into making the building as dementia-friendly as possible. Bright colours and clear signs on everything are used to easily tell what everything is. The two Louise’s also dress in matching uniforms for familiarity too.
Ms Askew said for someone with severe memory loss it can also be difficult to see things three-dimensionally, so things like black door mats can look like a black hole and lines on the floor can appear as steps.
She said: “It makes a massive difference, they don’t always remember being here but they remember how it feels so they know when they come in it’s a feeling of familiarity and knowing where they are. It makes a big difference to them.”
The NHS said the number of people living with dementia is rising as people live longer and according to the Alzheimer’s Society one in 14 people over the age of 65 will develop dementia and one in six over age 80. As a result of high demand and cuts to local funding, the Louises said it was getting more difficult to find money.
Ms Ashmore said: “Funding is getting harder and harder, there’s more people needing support and more services closing and there’s only so many funders with so much money to allocate. But we just keep writing and crossing our fingers, toes and anything we can and hope we can get what we need to continue.
“We do a lot of fundraising, our service users do support us really well and we’ll just keep trying - it’s all we can do. We’re in the same boat as a lot of organisations.”
Coun Jayne Dunn, representative for Southey ward, said she visits as often as she can and called it a lifeline. “The Big Lottery shouldn’t be funding this. It should come centrally from government to us and then we can then take the burden off them for bidding and just deliver it because they are forces to be reckoned with.
“Putting a smile on people’s faces, carers having a break, laughing, joking - we all know that is how people stay healthier for longer and that doesn’t have a cost but unfortunately this government says it has. But dementia is only going to get more common, there should be one of these on the doorstep in every community.
“It’s heartbreaking because you’ve got this, youth services and everybody needs it but these men and ladies have worked all their life and paid their taxes – that’s the reason why my son went to uni and I managed to do what I did, and I just see my granddad and grandma in all of them.
“If you break these links, you’ll see hearts broken and people will die because they will be lonely.
“Pumping these things in is a reason why I stand to be a councillor – it’s for this and this is the difference it makes.”