Memory Cafe

Michelle Dionisio, a dance teacher and aging services expert, leads Memory Cafe events, which the Jewish Family & Children’s Service is expanding into central Phoenix.

When Janet Arnold, the Creative Aging coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS), showed up for a Memory Cafe event in Surprise, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But it turned out to be an emotional experience.

“They billed it as a doo-wop dance. There were about 25 people there, some with dementia and some care partners,” Arnold said of the event led by Michelle Dionisio, a dance teacher and aging services expert.

“Michelle started talking to them about the music from the ’50s and ’60s, and you could see their eyes light up,” Arnold said. “She asked if anyone knew the names of some of the girl groups; hands went up and people started grinning as they named groups.”

Dionisio gave participants options for choreography, depending on their abilities.

“By the end, when she played a ‘stroll,’ everyone was up dancing,” Arnold recalled. “It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. Each of these participants had a wonderful experience that allowed them to forget their problems for at least a few minutes.”

Started in Amsterdam in 1997, the Memory Cafe movement has spread all across the U.S. The events allow those with memory loss, mild cognitive impairment or dementia to come together, socialize and engage in a variety of activities built around a monthly theme. Early next month, JFCS will bring a series of Memory Cafes to central Phoenix.

“I’ve been hoping to begin a Memory Cafe in central Phoenix since learning of the concept, and I am very excited about our first meeting,” said Kathy Rood, Jewish social services manager for JFCS. “Memory Cafes have a positive impact in the lives of those on both sides of the care partnership. The cafe provides an opportunity to be in a fun and relaxed group setting, with the knowledge that one is safe and that there is respect for differences, as well as freedom from stigma.”

JFCS will hold Memory Cafes on the first Thursday of each month. The first session, on Nov. 2, will feature Dionisio conducting another doo-wop-themed dance activity. The former dancer has 37 years of experience in administering aging services throughout the Valley, including 26 years as president and CEO of Benevilla, a nonprofit providing social care and support to seniors, adults with disabilities, children and the families that care for them. Dionisio has taught dance classes throughout her career.

In addition to the session with Dionisio, there will be an ice cream social, among other events. A diagnosis of dementia is not required to attend the Memory Cafe sessions, but space is limited and RSVPs are required. To learn more, call 602-452-4627 or email JN