On the seventh floor of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, families struggling with memory impairment are discovering a new resource that exemplifies the organization’s mission of being a community for all. And from the joyful singing, laughter, and conversation that echoes throughout the halls on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it appears that the JCC has found a winning formula.
From its beginnings more than two decades ago, the JCC, located at 334 Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street, has been many things to many people—a pool, a gym, a school, a gathering place, a center for Jewish life–the list goes on. But since October 2022, when its Wechsler Center for Modern Aging introduced The Memory Project, an in-person program for individuals struggling with mild to medium cognitive loss and their families, the JCC has become even more–a place of engagement, respite, and support…and hope.
Following an overwhelming response, the JCC has scheduled four sessions to accommodate more participants when the program begins again this fall. A supplemental program, The Memory Cafe, takes place on Thursdays.
The Memory Project will be offered September 19-October 31 from 11 am-noon and 1-2 pm, and November 14-December 19 from 11 am-noon and 1-2 pm. The Memory Cafe will be held every other Thursday, from 1-3 pm, from September 21-December 14. Registration for both programs is ongoing.
The backbone of The Memory Project is its concurrent programming model, providing an environment of support for both family members and their spouses or significant others with memory impairment. While their loved ones are engaged in singing (often accompanied on piano), games, art, and other creative cognitive outlets, family caregivers come together in a group of their own, receiving support from leaders and peers, discovering resources and camaraderie, and enjoying a break from the struggles of their daily lives.
Program director Judith Margolis, LCSW, brings to The Memory Project a personal, as well as professional passion–her husband, Lenny, battled dementia before his death in November 2019. Her own experience has given her a firsthand view into why such a program is so important.
A team of geriatricians from Mount Sinai serve as consultants and trainers for volunteers and staff.
A key inspiration for the program was the Wechsler Center’s Caring Initiative, in which volunteers began calling older adults within the JCC community when the pandemic forced isolation for so many. Callers encountered numerous people expressing concerns about their spouse and talking about their own struggles as well. “There was an obvious demand,” Margolis says.
“What specifically appealed to me was the support group component,” says a participant who takes part in the programs with her husband. “A lot are on Zoom, or in person but not geographically convenient. Something like this, which combines care for the patient and support group, is vital and unusual.”
Another participant had been unsuccessful in finding a good fit in the past. “My wife didn’t benefit much from virtual programs; this structure was just ideal,” he says. “Here, I could spend time with others who could share their experience, and discover shared experiences and resources.” Conversations and topics are often generated by members and their particular concerns.
For another, learning about resources from others who have more experience in this realm has been especially helpful. “Everyone is in a different stage as far as their family member’s cognition level,” she says. “Just sharing experiences is huge. Conversations become personal. We get to know and trust each other.”
Basing the program at the JCC, an active, vibrant place that many may already be familiar and comfortable with, rather than in an institutional setting, also sets the program apart from others, says Wechsler Center Director Susan Lechter. Having the JCC as a home base for The Memory Project gives participants the feeling of being part of a lively intergenerational community.“ To be able to provide respite and activities within a normalizing environment feels very mission-consistent,” she adds.
Margolis says the program brings together caregivers and their loved ones in a way that supports the family unit, encourages caregivers to share their experiences and needs with their adult children, and promotes an accepting environment.
The sessions for those with cognitive loss are led by a music and movement therapist. Participants enjoy familiar songs, often with piano accompaniment. People with memory impairment have a comfort level and engage in music, movement, and cognitive activities, Margolis explains. “Music is one piece of the program, but it’s an important part.” Participants also look at well-known images together and help create a story around them. “What matters is that their ideas are being formulated and they are working together,” she adds.
“This program suits my husband very well,” says one caregiver. “He enjoys being with a bunch of peppy people.”
The Memory Café, featuring music, movement, and conversation, is not only for those with memory loss; caregivers are given the option to stay or to take time for themselves. There is a small fee for both the Memory Project and the Memory Cafe.
“I am wildly enthusiastic about the program,” says a member of the caregiver support group. “I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”