There has been no shortage of complex strategies and guidelines regarding dementia care over the last two decades, but there is a growing list of evidence that suggests the best results may occur from going back to basics. 

People are social creatures, and the need to feel included by those around us does not appear to diminish with age or cognitive decline.

Like all great things in life, happiness is an experience that feels best when it is shared – and the creation of Canberra’s first Community Café has seen dementia take a back seat to the positivity that comes from living with purpose.

Registered nurse and Community Café founder, Nicole Smith, has spent over a decade working in the aged care space, but it was the idea of bringing the community together to rally around older people living with dementia that drove Nicole’s decision to take a chance.

“Community Cafe’s started in the Netherlands in 1997 and quickly spread to the US, although there are a few now in Australia, there definitely weren’t any in the ACT, and I knew that it would have a positive impact,” said Nicole. 

Each Community Café is a two-hour session that is held once a month and pairs older people who are living with dementia with children from a local childcare facility, encouraging them to work together on meaningful tasks.

The Community Cafe is free to attend, and this is made possible by the generosity of local community members who have come together to support the initiative.

“Local businesses support our café and allow us to operate,” said Nicole.

“We have a yoga teacher who volunteers her time for every session, we get cakes from a local bakery that is willing to lend a hand, and then we get local artists and creative people in to assist with activities.”

“I’ve had amazing support from The Salvation Army who let me host the café at a health facility that they operate called Burrangiri here in the ACT.”

Every Community Café session allows attendees to engage in a meaningful activity for 90 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of yoga and five minutes of meditation and mindfulness.

Although the majority of older attendees are living with dementia, being tasked with assisting children in meaningful activities allows them to feel valued for their insight and knowledge as well as feeling mentally engaged.

This unique situation combined with the physical and mental benefits of yoga and meditation has resulted in dementia becoming a non-issue within the cozy confines of each Community Café.

“All of our older attendees are diagnosed with having moderate to severe dementia, but it’s not something we think about because it doesn’t hinder anything that we try to do,” said Nicole.

“So often, the activities that are being set up for people living with dementia are far too simple and childlike, but we like to present them with tasks that are a bit more meaningful and give them a chance to figure things out.”

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“Obviously if someone is really struggling we provide assistance, but even then, once you get them started you find that everyone finds their way. And you can tell that it’s really rewarding.”

“Like everyone else, our attendees appreciate variety, and we have already done things like flower arranging and cookie decoration, and this month we will be doing some jewelry making.”

“It’s about building confidence, being connected to others, showing the kids what they can do and being proud of what they create.”

The children who attend the Community Café are actually the classmates of Nicole Smith’s own daughter who attends a local daycare center.

These children have grown to enjoy the company of their elderly friends so much that the wait between the monthly visits was too long, and they now meet with the same group from the Community Café on a fortnightly basis to work on art projects.

The children also write letters to their new friends in-between visits to let them know how much they miss them. 

“The kids have come out of their shell, and you can see a real change in attitude and appreciation that they have for the elderly,” said Nicole.

“They write letters to the people living with dementia, they’ve got a book where they write about their journey, and they definitely have their favourites.”

The Community Café is currently in its fifth month of operation, and making this positive initiative become a reality has required Nicole Smith to part with a lot of her own personal savings and free-time.

“Initially, I went into this thinking like a nurse, but I quickly realised that I had to become a business in order to tick all the right boxes to host these events,” said Nicole.

“Between the insurances, compensation, website and e-commerce store, it basically cost me all my savings, and that’s why I am so thankful for the local businesses and organisations that allow initiatives like this to thrive.”

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The Community Café is a profit for purpose social enterprise that also sells a number of dementia wellness products in order to continue bringing the outside world back into the lives of people living with dementia.

Many institutions that deliver dementia care are stifled by red-tape, but the Community Café is not risk-averse and therefore willing to step outside of the box in order to deliver rich experiences to their attendees.

“I only got insurance one hour before our first cafe because I got knocked back by five different insurance companies after I told them that there would be people with dementia, children and possibly a few alpacas,” said Nicole.

While there has been no shortage of assistance from local community members, Nicole has not garnered anywhere near the same level of support from institutions that operate in the aged care space.

“I feel that others in the industry might see me as a competitor or something, which I find so bizarre. The lack of support really has me out there on my own doing this, but that’s ok,” said Nicole.

“We are combining local businesses, students, carers, musicians, researchers, artists, yoga teachers, and schools to create caring communities for people living with dementia to be a part of.”

Alongside the Community Café, Nicole also hosts a support group for people with early-onset dementia in a local bookstore that is also a wine bar.

“We all have a chat over a glass of wine and some cheese, and it’s really important for people who have just been diagnosed to talk their way through the stigmas and reassure themselves about their place in the world,” said Nicole.

“This is how we as a country should be treating people who are living with dementia. There is nothing wrong with them, they just need the community to come to them in order to be a part of things.”

“The stigma of dementia often detracts from the fact that these people have the same desire to feel valued in the community. And these are communities that these people actually built. Living needs to be their number one priority, the disease should always come secondary.”

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