Friends matter. They’re the people we have fun with; the people we can confide in and lean on when we need to. Research even shows that friends improve our health. When a dear friend develops dementia, however, it can test even the strongest relationships. What can you do when the activities you used to enjoy together don’t work out so well anymore? Many friends drift apart. In the 2019 World Alzheimer’s Report, over half of respondents in the Americas reported difficulty making or keeping friends. As one respondent said, “I call it the friendship divorce. I have lost a fair amount of people in my life that at one time I considered friends.”

Abbe and Judy’s Decades-Long Friendship

Abbe and Judy met 30 years ago when their daughters, Alissa and Becca, were just 10 years old. Abbe needed someone to pick up Becca at Hebrew school and look after her until Abbe got home from work. Judy offered to help, and a wonderful family friendship was born. Over the years, the two families took trips to Martha’s Vineyard together, shared dinners and attended a movie club that Judy created. Abbe’s husband, David, and Judy’s husband, Gil, both musicians, became close friends and still play in a band together. To this day, Alissa and Becca are best friends.

In the midst of planning Alissa’s wedding, Judy shared some unexpected news. She told Abbe that she had been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which often leads to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. At first, Abbe couldn’t believe it, but over time the symptoms were undeniable. Judy had to retire from her career as a psychotherapist.

When a person develops dementia, friends may not know how to keep a conversation going, or how to enjoy time together. The person with dementia may find him or herself increasingly isolated, along with a spouse or another close family member who may end up shouldering the entire responsibility of providing both care and human connection, more than one person can really do. This is where memory cafés can help. Memory cafés are social gatherings for people living with dementia, along with friends, family members and professional caregivers. They are free of charge, and no one is asked if they have a diagnosis.

Making Memory Cafés a Monthly Routine

Concerned that Judy needed something social to do, Abbe’s daughter, Becca, had heard about the JF&CS Memory Café, and Abbe persuaded Judy to give it a try. On their first visit, musician Doug Schmolze was singing and playing guitar. “We were blown away,” said Abbe. “The lyrics were up on the screen at the front so everyone could be reminded of the words. I looked down the row of seats, and everyone was singing along.” Judy and Abbe have become regulars at the JF&CS Memory Café, have gotten to know other café guests and have started inviting their friends to attend the café as well.

There are over 125 memory cafés in Massachusetts, and Abbe encourages others to make memory cafés part of their routine with a friend who lives with dementia. “I think many friends are nervous about the commitment,” Abbe said. “But it’s not hard to come to a program where there are kind people and a facilitated activity. It’s a two- or three-hour commitment once a month to be with your friend. And it’s so pleasant!”

There’s nothing like a good friend. The smiles on Judy’s and Abbe’s faces say it all.

Find a memory café near you in our Massachusetts Memory Café Directory.

Beth Soltzberg is the director of Alzheimer’s/Related Disorders Family Support Program at JF&CS.

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