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Meet a doctor improving the well-being of Nova Scotians with dementia

Struggling to hold a conversation, remember names and basic details can make social interactions difficult and stressful for people who have dementia or memory challenges.

It can turn people (and their care partners) away from the things they enjoy in life, limiting their social activities, cutting them off from their community and putting their mental health at risk.

Wolfville psychiatrist Dr. Beverley Cassidy aims to change that. Her Memory Café NS initiative is helping improve well-being and bring social connection and support for Nova Scotians affected by dementia or memory issues.

“Social isolation and loneliness are huge health risks – it’s like the equivalent of daily smoking,” says Dr. Cassidy. In practice for 26 years, she’s interested in how psychiatry can promote mental health at the community and systems level.

Presented over five sessions, memory cafés are organized by volunteers and take place once a month at a local café or other community venue. People with memory issues, their family members and care partners are all welcome.

The cafés feature non-memory-based conversation so everyone can contribute. “That takes away the anxiety,” Dr. Cassidy says. “We develop each series based on the expressed emotional needs of people living with dementia and offer the chance to have fun and connect socially with others. Care partners often tell us they feel like they’re on a date with their loved ones.”

Dr. Cassidy organized the first Memory Café NS in Wolfville in 2019. She’d heard about the cafés after meeting with Beth Soltzberg, a social worker and champion of inclusion in Boston who helps support the launch of memory cafes across New England.

“I felt Nova Scotia would have a need for this,” says Dr. Cassidy. “The cafés are really low cost and sustainable, and feature local art and music.”

Local artists from the community are highlights of each series, facilitating collaborative art projects. At a recent province-wide virtual memory café, participants received silk painting kits in advance and Canning artist Holly Carr, a program regular, showed them how to paint their own silk creations.

Local musicians are also important to the success of memory cafés. People with dementia often maintain their connection to music, notes Dr. Cassidy. “Music is stored in a deep area of the brain. Even when short-term memory is impaired, musical memory and appreciation are often preserved.”

In the coming year, nine memory cafés will be offered across Nova Scotia, including in Cape Breton, Tantallon, Chester, Bridgewater, Argyle, Shelburne, Clare and the Annapolis Valley. Several are offered in French.

Dr. Cassidy credits local municipalities with helping get the word out. “The Atlantic region has the highest percentage of people over age 65 in the country, so municipalities have been amazing in their support and are recognizing the need for age-friendly community-building and inclusion of people living with dementia.”

Looking ahead, she says the goal is to offer a website with resources that are free and easy to use, so any community can start their own memory café. “That way, the cafés can grow sustainably.”

“Great musicians and artists are found in every corner of the province – [they are] some of our greatest natural resources! Given this and our age demographic, I feel like Nova Scotia is a perfect place for memory cafés to flourish.”

Memory Café NS has already earned national recognition, with the Alzheimer Society of Canada giving it the Dementia-friendly Grassroots Award in 2023.

Learn more about the project and how to register FOR a memory café in your community on the program’s website. Dr. Cassidy also invites medical learners and students to volunteer with the program. “Medical students or psychiatry residents interested in being part of the team or developing their own projects are very welcome.”

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