Memory Cafe serves up camaraderie for dementia patients

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ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Stan Mokwa worries that his wife, Larvetta, will wander away from their Harborcreek Township home.

"She walks with a walker, so I probably don't have to worry about that. But I do," said Mokwa, 78.

He also worries that she might hurt herself or someone else. A relative told him to put kitchen knives away because her mother, who had dementia, once went after her with a knife.

"I don't think Larvetta could, but I keep them away," Mokwa said.

Mokwa cooks, cleans and cares for his 74-year-old wife full time. But twice a month, while his son spells him, he sings, paints and socializes with friends at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie. The church hosts a twice-monthly Memory Cafe for people with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Caregivers, like Mokwa, are also welcome.

"It's just nice to get out and to talk to people here," Mokwa said during Thursday's Memory Cafe.

Mokwa, Wilmer and Carolyn Laird and other Alzheimer's patients and caregivers painted clay flower pots, sang and talked as they enjoyed refreshments. Wilmer Laird, 83, has Alzheimer's. Retired from the Navy and GE Transportation, he wore an "Old Guys Rule" T-shirt to Thursday's Memory Cafe.

"What he really likes is the camaraderie, and the singing," Carolyn Mokwa, 66, said. "There's no pressure here. He can socialize and have fun."

"They have free coffee," Wilmer Laird joked.

He smiled and gave a thumbs-up after joining in singalongs of "You Are My Sunshine," ''Home on the Range," "'Til We Meet Again" and other old-time favorites Thursday. The singing is led by Tom Schlaudecker, who organized the Memory Cafe after retiring in 2014 as volunteer director of the Upper Room homeless shelter in Erie.

"I had my eye peeled for something else I could do when I read a denominational magazine article about dementia and the number of people affected, and that will be affected in the future," Schlaudecker said. "There was a sidebar piece on Memory Cafes that the church was doing in other places, and I saw a possible role for our church here."

An estimated 5.1 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer's disease. That number is expected to increase by 40 percent, to 7.1 million, in a decade, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation's Memory Cafe is based on a Jamestown, N.Y., program. "We've emulated what Jamestown did and put our own spin on it," Schlaudecker said.

The Erie congregation launched its Memory Cafe in March and offers the free program from 1 to 3 p.m. on the first and third Thursday of each month.

Activities include light exercise and stories. Church volunteer Ginny Sabol this past week read "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," a children's book about a tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

"It's a starting point for discussion and memories," Sabol said.

Volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie so far outnumber the people coming to their Memory Cafe. They're publicizing the program in hopes of attracting and helping more people.

"The people who've come are especially happy to talk to each other. They're making connections here," volunteer Edie Cultu said.

The congregation is happy to help, Regis Sabol said.

"We're Unitarians. It's what we do," he said.




Information from: Erie Times-News,

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