Amy’s Place: A respite for dementia caregivers and their loved ones

At Amy’s Place, sisters Jean and Pam Van Ahn want dementia caregivers to find needed respite from their duties and maybe make a new friend walking the same difficult journey.

In an old house in Roswell’s historic district, the sisters have established a memory cafe open without charge six days a week.

Memory cafes are places where those with Alzheimer’s or other dementia and their caregivers can go for fellowship and activities. These social gatherings are usually set up temporarily at coffee shops, community centers, churches and the like. The Van Ahns wanted something more. Amy’s Place is patterned after the full-service memory cafes found throughout Europe, said Jean, who has been told theirs is the first free-standing, full-time cafe of its kind in the United States.

From the very beginning, the sisters wanted Amy’s Place to feel like home for the caregiver. They decorated the rental house for comfort while also being mindful of the physical limitations of those with dementia.

Spaces are open and easy to maneuver. Tables are round, fostering conversation. Bright vibrant colors, artwork and large sunny windows act as destressers. Caregivers are invited to help themselves to snacks and drinks in the fully stocked kitchen. There’s even a shower for those who want some “me” time.

“It should be a home away from home,” Pam said.

“This is a place they can go when they don’t want to go home,” Jean added. She remembers needing something like this when caring for her mom.

Some years ago, Jean watched as lewy body dementia slowly shrank her mother’s life, robbing her of memory and physical abilities. Jean’s own life began to shrink as well.

Her circle of friends grew smaller. People didn’t come visit as often. The places she could take her mother became fewer. Dining out became such a chore she let those outings go.

Pam quit her nursing job, moved to Roswell and became the live-in caregiver during the last eight months of their mother’s life. She died in 2012. Both sisters said they understand the isolation and loneliness of caring for a loved one with dementia.

“It’s isolating for the person with the disease and for the one taking care of them,” Jean said. “And it changes you. Even when your loved one is no longer alive, you’re a different person.”

They vowed to help other caregivers walking in this journey. Six months after their mother passed away, they established a nonprofit called Caring Together in Hope, through which they fund Alzheimer’s respite care and other needs for family caregivers. Opening a memory cafe was always a long-term goal for the charity.

Amy’s Place is named in memory of Amy Wynn Norman, who was wife of Realtor Harry Norman Jr. and a good friend of Jean’s. (Jean was formerly chief financial officer for Harry Norman Realtors.) The memory cafe opened March 5 with help of a grant through the American Endowment Fund. Operational costs are being paid through donations.

While there are structured activities planned months in advance, there’s also plenty of downtime. Just come and relax, the sisters say. Enjoy an impromptu card game. There’s free Wi-Fi and a computer to use. Come play the piano, or curl up on a couch with a good book.

Amy’s Place will also host caregiver support groups, and community educational programs are planned to help destigmatize dementia.

“I just love sitting and talking with the people,” said Pam, who said she and Jean don’t normally give advice or talk about their own caregiving experiences except when asked.

The sisters are content for Amy’s Place to evolve, and they’re making changes as they go. “It will end up being what the caregiver wants,” Jean said.

“We’ve got a dream out here,” she continued, spreading her arms as far apart as possible, “we’ll have to evaluate as we go.

“The whole goal is that they come out of here with a friendship.”

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