Local art enriches lives at Memory Cafe
A handful of local artists have been working with Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley to bring those living with a dementia and their care partners a place to go.
FARGO — Luau music plays softly in the background as Certified Music Therapist Deb McTaggart hands out rainbow-colored leis to a crowd of people seated in the community room at Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley in downtown Fargo.
“Today, we’re going to Hawaii,” she said. “How many of you have been to Hawaii?”
Almost all of the dozen or so participants’ hands go up.
“And what did you love about Hawaii?” McTaggart asked.
“The beaches,” one woman said.
“The sunsets,” another person said.
Out of nowhere someone blurts out, “Hulas!”
McTaggart pulls a ukulele out of her magical bag of instruments. “It’s actually pronounced ‘oook-uh-lay-lee.’ ” She switches the music over to Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s soulful rendition of “ Somewhere Over the Rainbow ,” and suddenly everyone is singing along , word for word by heart.
Just as suddenly, nobody in the room is grappling with a terrible disease. Nobody is worried about forgetting a word or getting confused. Nobody is grappling with the changes that come with taking on a caregiver role.
They’re just singing. They’re simply in the moment. They’re incredibly happy.
“When music is present, it creates a special place for joy, love, laughter and connection,” McTaggart said after she ended the hour-long session with alohas and hugs from participants.
McTaggart and a handful of local artists have been working with Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley to bring those living with a dementia and their care partners a place to go that includes meaningful arts-focused activities that spark participants’ abilities, not disabilities, by enabling what someone with dementia can do, rather than what they cannot do.
Their work is making an enormous difference.
McTaggart, who’s worked with people experiencing memory loss for more than 40 years, received her music therapy degree at Augsburg College in Minnesota.
“Music therapy is a clinical, research-based discipline,” she said. “Research studies on music and the brain have shown that music is processed in multiple areas of the brain, and music has the power to change how we feel, how we see the world around us, and how we relate to one another.”
Trained and board-certified music therapists serve people of all ages in all walks of life. For people living with memory loss or dementia, music is a unique way for them to connect with the people around them, to experience joy in something that has been an important part of their lives and also to provide comfort and respite when needed.
“I’ve seen the power of music reach and move people when all else fails,” McTaggart said.
In similar ways, local visual artist Tia Permenter said her volunteer work at Memory Cafe has proven to her the power of putting paintbrush to paper.
A graduate of North Dakota State University visual arts with an emphasis in painting, volunteering in the community is as much a part of her artistic practice as anything else.
“Part of my personal philosophy is finding ways to interact with people through art and making it accessible to them,” she said.
Knowing people living with neurodegenerative diseases deserve as much accessibility to the arts as anyone else, Permenter started teaching painting classes at Memory Cafe in 2022, a responsibility that grounds her in her purpose.
“When I volunteer at Memory Cafe, it becomes a lovely layered experience because it’s useful and therapeutic. It grounds everyone back to life here, even if their mind is clouded, but they get to use their hands in a very meditative way,” she said.
Like McTaggart’s music therapy, Permenter believes creativity and being able to express that creativity is important for everybody. She notices that people who attend her sessions have a chance to speak and interact in a way that isn’t focused on how they’re interacting. Rather, they’re able to speak freely without worrying about their disease.
“The process in and of itself has a connective quality where you’re focused on what you’re doing, but you’re in this state with the people in the room and it’s much easier to talk and be at ease with,” she said.
Permenter uses tactile textures, papers, paintbrushes, inks, paints and watercolors in her sessions, all materials participants may not have used since their childhood days but almost always pick back up as if they used them just the other day.
“They immediately go back to, ‘OK, I’m creating something here.’ And it anchors them into what they’re doing. It just goes to show we never lose that desire to create and cut things and put them together. It’s beautiful,” she said.
Aside from music and painting, Memory Cafe hosts wood burning sessions each month, which are led by husband-and-wife duo Jerry and Janine Stene, and they always welcome artists reaching out when they’re interested in volunteering.
The Arts Partnership partner artists such as Emily Brooks and Nicole Gaigner also contribute to art-related events at Memory Cafe.
Memory Cafe Executive Director and co-founder Deb Kaul said she is always humbled by the way couples and families come together in “joy, laughter and camaraderie” whenever there’s an art event at the center.
“They seem to lose themselves as they participate in an art session,” Kaul said. “Science shows that the areas of the brain responsible for developing and maintaining an appreciation for art and music are often spared in people living with a dementia. Sometimes, those connections are even strengthened.”
About Memory Cafe
Memory Café is a free social gathering located in the Fargo-Moorhead area where people experiencing mild to moderate memory loss and their care partners come together in a safe, supportive and welcoming environment.
There are many independently run memory cafes across the United States. The Fargo center was co-founded by Kaul and Beth Ustenko in 2017 and has since grown into one of the nation’s most active memory cafe organizations.
The cafe offers a robust schedule of events, all centered around creating access, support and inclusivity to dementia families. It’s important work, considering North Dakota has some of the country’s highest rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia per capita. About 16,000 North Dakotans age 65 and older have a dementia, and another 22,000 are caregivers to those affected. Add that up, and it totals 38,000, or roughly the population of the city of West Fargo.
Some of the most popular and most requested activities are based in music and art. A schedule of events and more information are available on the organization’s website at www.memorycafeofrrv.com .
Giving Hearts Day
Memory Cafe has become so popular that they’ve outgrown their current space in downtown Fargo. Kaul hopes that donors on Giving Hearts Day will offer funds to the organization so they can continue to provide programming and support to families, while planting some seed money for a possible move to a larger space.
“Redefining memory loss. That is what we do here at Memory Cafe,” Kaul said. “We see such a need in our community, and that continues to grow every day.”
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.