When Pam Van Ahn greets you at the front door of Amy’s Place, she has a tail-wagging companion, Earl. The friendly black dachshund was previously owned by Van Ahn’s late mother, Carol, who was diagnosed with dementia and passed away in 2012. Van Ahn, a former nurse who moved to Roswell in 2011 to take care of her mother, says that her family created Amy’s Place—a unique gathering space known as a “memory care cafe” for people with dementia and their families—after learning firsthand what caregivers go through.
“This disease can be incredibly isolating,” says Van Ahn. “Not everyone was so comfortable coming around to visit Carol when they realized she didn’t even know her own daughter. I understood their reluctance. But if no one is stopping by to see your mom, they’re not stopping by to see you either. [I knew] other families were going through the same things, and they were not getting support.”
Created by Dutch psychiatrist Dr. Bere Miesen in 1997 in the Netherlands, memory care cafes quickly spread in Europe and later the U.S. But while other cafes pop up weekly or monthly at churches and senior community centers, Amy’s Place offers families a permanent place where they can drop in anytime. Van Ahn has been told it’s the first freestanding memory care cafe in the country.
Inside the converted house in historic Roswell, just past the putting green and the rockers on the porch, there’s a fully stocked kitchen and bathroom (in case caregivers need to grab a shower), comfortable couches, and Van Ahn’s grandmother’s dining room table, where she and her sister, Jean, the CFO of Amy’s Place, once sat as children. The open space is easy to navigate with walkers and wheelchairs, and the atmosphere is overwhelmingly calm and inviting.
With a ribbon cutting in February, Amy’s Place (named in memory of Jean’s friend, Amy W. Norman, whose endowment fund issued a grant for the cafe) is growing slowly, partnering with Alzheimer’s care facilities and doing community outreach. So far, the house has hosted a few hundred visitors and has a regular clientele of about 30 to 40 families who come in throughout the week. Van Ahn and her family modeled the cafe on similar full-service operations in Europe, and in addition to caregiver support group meetings and socializing opportunities for dementia patients and their families, Amy’s Place offers painting classes, free haircuts, and monthly birthday celebrations.
While there are not yet any U.S. studies on the benefits of memory care cafes, shared activities may improve relationships between patients and caregivers. In those with dementia, social interactions can help alleviate depression, which can worsen cognitive decline.
As soft music plays overhead, Van Ahn points to her grandma’s dining room table. “[Recently] a man was sitting at that table playing Go Fish with my granddaughter. He looked at her and said, ‘You’re cute.’ His wife just stared at me, incredulous.” She later told Van Ahn he hadn’t said a word in two years.
“I look around this house when it’s full of families and I realize that my mother endured everything she endured for a reason,” Van Ahn continues. “My family was able to create this in her honor.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.