Building memories and bridges

By Kyle Hobstetter on February 10, 2021

TU occupational therapy students’ virtual memory cafe benefits everyone attending

Graphic Illustration of a Zoom Meeting

Wanting to help a grandmother who has Alzheimer’s has fueled occupational therapist and Towson University faculty member Amanda Littleton, Ph.D. and her desire to learn more about treating cognitive diseases.

Now, Littleton is providing students real-world experience in helping those with cognitive diseases and their caregivers too.

In a partnership between the occupational therapy program and the Institute of Well-Being, Towson University will host a virtual Memory Cafe on the second Friday of February, March and April.

The event welcomes individuals with cognitive disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, etc.) and their caregivers into a space for educational activity, and will also serve as a support group as well.

“It’s good to bring everyone together and build a network,” Littleton says. “A lot of people feel like they have to face everything on their own. That’s unfeasible because you don’t ever want to be alone. You need a village.

“And in the virtual form, we have focused more on the caregiver because a lot times virtual formats aren’t great for patients who live with dementia. So, TU has been focused on the caregiver and things that they can take back to do with their loved one in their home during the pandemic.”

This spring will be the second term TU will host a Memory Cafe, with the first coming last fall. It features caregivers working with graduate student in the occupational therapy graduate program who can fulfill their Level I fieldwork in the community.

Topics for this term’s Memory Cafes include:

  • Feb. 12: Mental Health Resources for Caregivers
  • March 12: Behavior Management and Tailored Activities
  • April 9: Routines and Strategies

According to Littleton, those dealing with cognitive diseases are a very underserved population, because there is not a lot of education, knowledge or resources for them. And with a national pandemic going on, those in this group could feel more isolated.

Littleton says that the biggest benefit of a Memory Cafe is the stimulation. She says that for people living with dementia, the more stimulation they have, the more it requires them to use all the processes in the brain which helps slows down the symptoms of cognitive diseases. 

For their caregivers, it provides an outlet and support from someone who understands what they are going through. That’s why the first session is focused on caregivers and their mental health.

“Mental health for caregivers is important because we can’t care for somebody else if we can’t care for ourselves,” Littleton says. “In order to combat the changes and the progression of the dementia, you need socialization, you need simulation, you need physical movement and that has been wiped away. We want to help our caregivers find ways to keep helping their loved ones.”

Littleton also says that in a clinic, students can be focused medical components, and sometimes the cognitive components don’t always come through in their fieldwork experiences. By working directly with cognitive patients, they get to take a deep dive into a population they may not have worked with.

After taking part last fall's Memory Cafe, Littleton says that students have become more confident in answering questions and working with caregivers. 

“The more our students got into it, the more they really, really liked it,” Littleton says. “They were able to confidently answer questions from the caregivers that came, which is great, because it's a skill that they're building. And even just to present to a group of people they don't know is just another skill that they're able to build.”

Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Littleton and the Department of Occupational Therapy & Occupational Sciences are hoping to host in-person Memory Cafes at the Institute of Well-Being in downtown Towson.

For Littleton, she hopes these events continue to grow, as they combine her two favorite things—sharing her knowledge as an occupational therapist and helping those with cognitive diseases.

“I’ve been through this and I’ve helped my family understand and go through this and what resources are available,” she says. “Being able to do this as a faculty member and bringing it all together, it’s fabulous to give students real-life experience with a population that is difficult to understand how to treat and making [the students] feel confident they can go out there.”

To learn more about the Department Occupational Therapy & Occupational Science, check out their Facebook page. Those interested in the Virtual Memory Cafe can sign up and join the Zoom call.