What happens at a memory cafe?

What are the basic practicalities to think about ‘on the day’?
 What information should you give to guests?
What should you think about around the idea of ‘activities’?


Memory cafes come in all shapes and sizes.

Some are very focused on activities, whilst others are more focused on people enjoying each other’s company and chatting.

Most combine the two.

We’ll focus less on exhaustive lists of ideas, and more on the kind of things you need to be thinking about, and why. We hope this ultimately will be more valuable to you, as it requires you to think about what is relevant to your situation.

You’ll find links to more resources and ideas to help you.

On the day

Getting started

The atmosphere of your dementia cafe is everything. It should feel warm and relaxed. People should feel free to come and go as they please. It should feel fun.

Room layout

The layout of the tables and chairs can make a big contribution to creating an atmosphere that’s warm and welcoming. Unless you are using an existing cafe (it’s not unheard of), you’ll need to think about how you set up the tables. Always remember, you are running a cafe, not a care facility. You are there to care about people, not for them. So, you’ll want your seating and table arrangements to reflect that.

Large tables are best avoided, unless people are engaged in a large group activity or meeting of some sort. They can act as a barrier to mixing, and leave people staring at each other over a vast expanse of table top.

Small tables that can accommodate four to eight people, or ideally a mix of table sizes, will allow people to choose, and to circulate between different groups if they want to.

Some cafes take place in settings that can err towards the functional, with tables to match. Something as simple as nice tablecloths and cups and plates can turn a stark room into a warm and welcoming one.

Other equipment

If you are providing information, you might want a separate table where people can look at leaflets or perhaps information online. More on that below.

If you have a guest speaker, which some cafes do, then make sure that any equipment they are going to use is set up and working. If you have someone coming to give advice on a one-to-one basis, then they might also like a table or seating area set up for them. Ask them in advance which they would prefer.

You’d be well-advised to have a signing-in sheet so you can keep track of how many people are coming. Name badges can also be really useful. It can be incredibly embarrassing to forget people’s names, and a simple thing like a name badge helps us all out. Make sure you ask people what they want to be called, and use that on their badge.

Pens and paper and other stuff for any activities you might have planned should be at the ready. Devon Memory Cafes Consortium has a list of equipment needed for various activities here: https://www.dmcc.org.uk/resources/Information/MC-Activity-suggestions-Equipment.pdf 

Meeting and greeting

You should make sure that people are met as they arrive, especially if they are new. You might have a specific table set up near the entrance where you can take people’s details if they are new – and hand out name badges. The warmth of this meeting can make or break someone’s experience of your cafe.

Old-time members will most likely head in to join their friends or snaffle the best table. New ones might need a bit more hand-holding. Have volunteers ready to show them to a table, and sit and chat, if that seems the right thing to do. Keep it informal, it’s not an interview. Depending on how things are organised, drinks and nibbles should be offered and provided quickly.

As time goes by, new members will become old-timers and might well start to take a more active role in welcoming newbies. Try to encourage this. Make connections between members wherever possible. Memory cafes can be an incredible powerful tool for building new friendships and relationships.

Anyone arriving at a cafe for the first time should be asked to fill out a short registration form at some point during their visit. This gives you the basic information you need:

  • Name, address, etc.
  • How the client heard of the group
  • Have they had a diagnosis?
  • How does their dementia affect them?
  • Are there any other relevant health problems?
  • Emergency contact details – note these into a register
  • Particular interests, hobbies, etc.

Information and support

One thing that distinguishes a memory cafe is the provision of information to members. Remember, it’s important to steer clear of giving advice. People will tend to see you and the volunteers as the font of all wisdom when it comes to dementia. It’s important to be able and willing to say “I don’t know, but I know someone who might be able to help……”

You’ll need to understand what is available locally so that you can signpost people to the best sources of help.

DMCC has produced a really comprehensive guide, ‘Living with Dementia in Devon – A Carers Guide’, which you will find here: https://www.dmcc.org.uk/resources/Information/Living-with-Dementia-booklet-0221.pdf

You’d be well-advised to maintain an up-to-date list of key contacts in your area as well. You should have been able to make a pretty good list of these when you were finding out about other local organisations and contacts.

Alzheimer’s Society have a handy search facility for finding services in your area here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk

You can also invite local organisations and professionals in to meet with your members in the relaxed setting of your cafe. Not all cafes do this, but those that do have included, among others, Occupational Therapists, Solicitors, Dementia Advisors, Social Workers, Community Psychiatric Nurses, staff from Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK.

Many cafes have a table set aside for information that might be of interest to members. This usually includes information about dementia and local sources of support, but can also include details of other events and services that might be of interest to people in your area.

When dementia cafes first started, it was common for them to have speakers on various subjects. Some cafes still do this but many do not.

While professional support and information can be an important part of the memory cafe experience, it’s the support and company of others with dementia and their carers which arguably has the greatest benefit. Talking with others who have a shared experience, not only of dementia but of living with it in your area, can be priceless.

Many people say that simply being with others in an environment where dementia is part of everyone’s life can bring a powerful sense of relief and camaraderie.

So valuable as structured support and activities can be, always leave space for people to simply be together… and it’s to the subject of ‘activities’ that we now turn.

‘Activities’ or ‘activity’?

It might seem like a small distinction, but there is a gulf of meaning between these two words, and as far as cafes are concerned, a wealth of inference to be drawn about the environment, and one’s place within it.

‘Activity’ describes both a state of being, and of interacting with the world and those around us. ‘Activities’, certainly in the context of dementia, can mean something rather different, and more passive in that ‘activities’ are seen as being provided for people, and delivered to them, rather than generated by them.

Structured and timetabled activities were very much a feature of the early days of cafes.

Devon Memory Cafe Consortium has produced a list of ideas for activities, and how they might be structured here: https://www.dmcc.org.uk/resources/Information/MC-Activity-suggestions-Equipment.pdf

Some cafes still organise their sessions this way, whilst others have opted for a less structured approach. There is no denying the power of structured activities to bring people together, and provide cognitive stimulation. However, too much can easily stifle spontaneity and can mean members have less time to simply enjoy each other’s company.

So how to get the balance right for your cafe? To answer, we first need to know why people come to memory cafes.

Dr Lisa Burrows, a nurse lecturer who helps run a memory cafe in Cornwall, did her PhD answering this question, by studying a group of Cornish memory cafes and interviewing volunteers and guests – both carers and people living with dementia.

Her thesis paints a varied picture of reasons for attending cafes:

  • Making connections with other people
  • Meeting others sharing a similar journey
  • Getting out of the house
  • Laughing
  • Talking
  • Doing some shared activities
  • Getting information about other things going on or other services for people living with dementia

This film looks at what motivates people to attend memory cafes – and the types of activities that enhance people’s reasons for coming along – rather than hindering them…


Music is one of the most common ways of getting people together at memory cafes. Sometimes this is through sing-alongs. At other times musicians come in to play. But it is also one of the areas where there are likely to be the strongest personal preferences. Developing dementia does not automatically make someone a fan of Vera Lynn and Second World War songs.

Background music is sometimes used at cafes, and it can help to create a warm, convivial atmosphere. However, it can be problematic as:

  • Not everyone has the same taste in music
  • Many people simply dislike background music
  • Many people will find it makes concentration on what others are saying more difficult
  • Many who also have a hearing impairment may find it compromises their ability to hear others

So, if you are going to use background music, bear these things in mind, and most importantly…

…get to know what your members like and need.

When we know our members, we can structure ‘activity’ around both the needs of the group, and of the individuals within it. Group activities can then be chosen and focused on those that want them, and individuals can be engaged in activity which has meaning for them. You’ll find more about this in the Getting Started section ‘Making sure members have a voice’.

It has been said that an ‘activities timetable’ should make little sense unless one knows the individuals involved. Think about the things that you like to do, that have meaning for you. What might that look like in a memory cafe setting? It is likely that some of those things will be uniquely individual to you…

…and don’t forget about what is arguably the most important activity at any memory cafe.

Music Therapist Susan does sessions at Willand Memory Cafe. Listen in on one of her sessions, and hear her give some tips about using music at memory cafes:

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