By Lin Sue Flood

When Tim Shaffer’s wife was diagnosed with dementia, both their lives changed. In the blink of an eye, he became her caregiver. Suddenly, Tim was the one responsible for keeping her safe and meeting her daily needs.  “I was looking for answers, trying to figure out why certain behaviors were occurring,” he confesses. “I was extremely frustrated and angry.”

His anxiety lessened after he discovered the Memory Café at Hospice of the Valley’s new Dementia Care and Education Campus in central Phoenix. Every Monday morning, Tim and 20 other caregivers meet to share their challenges, while in a nearby room, their loved ones engage in fun activities like singing, dancing, painting and pet therapy with the help of specially trained staff.

This unique support group is facilitated by Nicole Crothers, a Hospice of the Valley dementia educator.

“One of the most difficult things about living with dementia is the isolation,” she explains. “Care partners not only lose their relationship with their loved one, but with friends who don’t understand what they’re going through. This is a place to connect with people who aren’t going to judge you. Instead, when you say something, everyone in the room nods and says, ‘I get that.’ ”

That connection helps Tim and other caregivers open up about their deepest fears and frustrations.

Shelly Oliver says the Memory Café gives her hope that she will be able to provide loving care to her husband. “Little did I know I would ever be here. This program is helping us now, and for what’s ahead. We know there’s support when we need it.”

The support group is also open to professional caregivers like Nancy Valenzuela. “Just being here with people and hearing what they have to say about how they’re helping their spouses helps me with Millie,” she says. “Like using simpler words so I don’t overwhelm her when I’m explaining something.”

As the session ends, participants say they feel “empowered” and “calmer,” knowing they can talk to others on the same journey. When they go to pick up their loved ones to head home, the scene is not what they expect —  a roomful of people singing and dancing to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

The smiles say it all. Not only is this a safe space for caregivers to share their hearts, it’s a safe place for their loved ones to experience joy.

“We want people to know that if you have a diagnosis of dementia, you’re not alone,” Crothers says. “There are lots of ways to improve quality of life and we can do it together.”

The Memory Café support group meets at 10 a.m. Mondays at the Dementia Education and Care Campus, 3811 N. 44th St., Phoenix.

Ongoing education sessions for dementia care partners also are offered at 10 a.m. Thursdays.

To learn more or to register, call (602) 767-8300 or email MemoryCafe@hov.org. Hospice of the Valley provides this support at no charge to families.

Lin Sue Flood is Director of Community Engagement at Hospice of the Valley.