“Doris,” a Union County resident in her 80s, suffers moderate memory loss. Her husband, “Fred,” came to realize that Doris needed outside companionship and that he needed occasional breaks from his daily duties as her caregiver.
Fred found a solution in the Coffee House, an innovative social and recreational day program that the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey offers to adults with mild to moderate memory loss due to dementia or stroke.
Launched July 2019 at JFS’s main office in Elizabeth, the Coffee House went remote during covid and returned to an in-person format last year. It meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in the new accessible facility at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains.
Every session includes seven activities — entertainment, exercise, and stimulating creative pursuits, as well as a hot kosher lunch — run by a professional staff with the goal of enhancing wellbeing and self-esteem, strengthening physical and cognitive abilities, and giving caregivers a needed respite.
It sounded good to Fred, but Doris was reluctant. She didn’t really want to go. Even when she finally agreed to show, she didn’t participate, program manager Lisa Tognola said.
“We talked to Fred about what we could do to draw her out and decided he’d bring a photo album we could keep here for her,” Ms. Tognola, a licensed social worker and certified dementia practitioner, said.
“Every morning we sit with Doris and look at the photos together. Over time, she’s told us more and more about the stories behind the pictures – the Thanksgiving dinners and building sandcastles on the Jersey Shore.”
Doris has become increasingly engaged in the program’s activities. “When Fred picked her up a few weeks ago, she stopped and turned to our staff and said, ‘You’re all so nice!’ and then she teared up and added, ‘I love you all.’ I was floored,” Ms. Tognola said. “It feels so good to know we make a difference.”
Bonnie Freirich, JFS’s director of dementia programs, said the Coffee House is the only non-medical recreational day program in Union County for people with mild to moderate dementia.
“There’s a tremendous amount of cognitive, physical, emotional and social stimulation here, and there is such a sense of joy — you see people smiling and eager to go to the program,” she said.
Ms. Tognola said that caregivers often tell her how grateful they are that the program allows them run errands and take care of themselves.
“We hear consistently that caregivers love the Coffee House,” Ms. Freirich added. “One caregiver recently looked into other options and said ours was the ‘Jaguar of programs.’
“Many things make it stand out, starting with the exceptional staff and volunteers — including our two home health aides, including one who is bilingual in English and Spanish — who care for each and every person. I’m so impressed each time I’m there to see the individual attention and activities designed for their level of functioning.”
Art and music infuse the atmosphere as Ms. Tognola and activities coordinator Cindy Postilnick guide participants in craft projects, sing-alongs, games such as “Name that Tune,” playing percussion instruments, and listening to soft classical or light rock music during relaxing activities.
The staff endeavors to discover each participant’s musical tastes. Doris, for example, loves Beach Boys tunes. “Dan,” who played the French horn in his younger days, gets a sparkle in his eye when he hears that instrument featured. “Ted” told the staff he used to hang out with Barbra Streisand, so he always appreciates a Babs song.
With support from a 2023 HEART (History, Education, Arts Reaching Thousands) grant from the Union County Board of County Commissioners, performers give monthly concerts at the Coffee House that foster opportunities for singing, dancing, and socializing.
“We focus on socialization,” Ms. Tognola said. “People who have memory loss are a very marginalized social group. They lose the ability to follow normal rules of social engagement. Our program makes a difference in the early stages by helping them stay at home longer.”
At the same time, she added, being at home “can be an isolated, lonely experience. So part of what drives this program is not just strengthening their cognitive abilities but enabling them to have fun in a safe place.
“We don’t dispense medication or have nurses onsite, and we don’t offer occupational or physical therapy like medical day centers do. That gives us the opportunity to emphasize socialization in unique and creative ways. We take the time to create stimulating educational programs with audio and visual elements appealing to all the senses.”
A program focusing on the work of primatologist Jane Goodall, for example, led to lively discussions about using animals in scientific research. There are trivia and Jeopardy-style games, recipe-sharing, mindfulness sessions, and enjoyable ways to enhance manual dexterity. “Discussing current events allows them to feel relevant and to shine when they answer a question or finish the lyrics to a song,” Ms. Tognola said.
Above all, “the Coffee House is a place that give participants a sense of purpose, the feeling that they matter. It offers them structure and a reason to get up and get dressed.”
Ms. Freirich said staff and participants warmly welcomes newcomers, and there’s room for more. “On any given day can have up to 20 people, but we can serve more than 20 because some participants only come once or twice a week,” she said.
The program is funded by JFS-Central NJ, the Union County Division on Aging, and private foundations and donors. Recently, the Westfield Foundation contributed $20,000 to the Coffee House.
The application process begins with an initial conversation with caregivers to determine the appropriateness of the program for the applicant’s needs and stage of dementia. If relevant, the individual and caregiver come in for a comprehensive assessment while the program is in session. If it’s not a good match, JFS will refer them to programs that might fit their needs better.
“It’s a blessing to see people blossom when they’re here in a safe place among staff that greets them by name when they come in, an environment where they have friends and are comfortable and feel important, where they have a voice and others will notice their new haircut or blouse,” Ms. Tognola said. “A place where they fit in. At the end of the day, we all want a place to belong.”
The Coffee House, a social and recreational program for adults with mild to moderate memory loss, meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Temple Sholom, 1925 Lake Avenue, Scotch Plains.
Transportation is available and a hot kosher lunch and snacks are served. A free monthly concert for participants and caregivers is offered.
The cost is $80 per day; a full subsidy is provided for qualified residents of Union County. Limited financial aid may be available upon request.
For more information, email Bonnie Freirich
at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at