Chances are good that you personally know someone who has, or at one time had, dementia. Alzheimer’s disease, the most well-known form of dementia, is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the current number of diagnosed cases, 5.4 million, is projected to triple by mid-century. Not only is this a staggering statistic, but it is sobering to consider the number of spouses and family members who, after the diagnosis, become caregivers.
Public libraries have responded to societal trends for decades, so it’s no surprise that librarians are serving patrons with dementia. The approaches I uncovered are anything but cookie cutter style, varying in focus as well as in the required resources and expertise.
If you are intrigued by programming options for this audience, consider Memory Cafés. A Café, designed for those with dementia and their caregivers, is a gathering with conversation, games, or entertainment. The Library Memory Project is a successful, collaborative effort by a group of libraries in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties, Wisconsin. Rachel Muchin Young, director of the Franklin Public Library in Wisconsin spoke of the their cafés, known as the Memory Project, as a common ground where every attendee participates and one doesn’t necessarily know which participants are the caregivers. An advantage to the Café model is that it combats the isolation that can occur for those with dementia and their family members. They are welcomed into a safe space and have the chance to meet others with similar experiences. Memory Project Cafés generally offer conversation and a sensory experience: tables with manipulatives or puzzles followed by a musical performance, an ice cream social, or a visit from Humane Society pets, all with opportunities for verbal sharing.
Programming, of course, takes on many forms and sometimes the library simply serves as a host site for a community partner. That was the case at Lewiston Public Library in Maine. The Maine Alzheimer’s Association trained college students to become volunteer scribes. Then the library hosted an event introducing the opportunity for trained scribes to interview and write the life story of an individual living with dementia.
An alternative to programming is to provide specially designed training for library employees. The Chapel Hill Public Library in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, joined a federally funded county-wide initiative that encouraged local businesses and organizations to earn a dementia-friendly designation. According to a press release, “The Dementia-Friendly Businesses Campaign will start with 10 local businesses that have pledged to enhance support for people with dementia and their caregivers, and as a result, improve quality of life and promote understanding and respect.” The campaign provided training for public services staff to help create an atmosphere that is comfortable for those with dementia said Molly Luby, library experiences assistant.
If you want to grow your knowledge, be sure to explore the Alzheimer’s Association’s website. Don’t be afraid to contact their helpline at 1.800.272.3900 for answers to sophisticated questions you might have or connect with one of the 81 local chapters for expert advice on collection or programming projects you’re considering. Your chapter may be open to collaborative work with you as well. For library-focused learning, PLA offers an on-demand webinar that outlines a tech-based programming model:. If you want to broaden your understanding of products appropriate for the audience, one site to check out is the Alzheimer’s Store.
If your library is striving to be more inclusive, consider service options for those with dementia and their caregivers. With a focus on dementia and a dash of compassion, we can better serve an audience truly in need of a safe space.
 @alzassociation, “Latest Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures,” Latest Facts & Figures Report, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.alz.org/facts/.
 Http://www.facebook.com/AARP, “Memory Cafés Offer Normalcy to Caregivers and Alzheimer’s Patients,” AARP, accessed September 13, 2016, http://blog.aarp.org/2013/07/17/sally-abrahms-memory-cafes/.
 “Lake Country Libraries Memory Project,” Lake Country Libraries Memory Project, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.librarymemoryproject.org/.
 Rachel Muchin Young (Library Director) in telephone interview with the author, September 2016.
 By Allowing Students to Record Their Life Story, Those with Dementia Provide Students with Invaluable Lessons about Life with an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis., “Alzheimer’s Association, Maine Chapter, Volunteer Scribes Program,” Lewiston Public Library Maine RSS, , accessed September 13, 2016, http://lplonline.org/events/alzheimers-association-maine-chapter-volunteer-scribes-program/.
 “Welcome to Orange County, NC,” Welcome to Orange County, NC, , accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.orangecountync.gov/news_detail_T4_R419.php.
 Molly Luby (Library Experiences Assistant) in telephone interview with the author, September 2016.