Gayane Khachatryan, 63, used to feel ashamed of forgetting things.
She would get embarrassed when she couldn’t remember the name of someone in a family photograph or if forgot where she put things.
But that all changed when her daughter suggested she visit Memory Café in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
“My daughter convinced me to come. When she told me about the cafe it made me stressed. I felt like I was going somewhere bad,” she said. “For a moment I thought that I had already reached the point that I was being kicked out of the house. Now I am glad that I came.”
The café is the only place of its kind in Armenia—a free day facility for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Once a week, people who have problems with memory or concentration come for two or three hours to talk, play memory games and enjoy each other’s company. On average, 10 to 15 people attend every week.
A local NGO, Alzheimer Care Armenia, opened the café on October 1 to answer a need they saw in the health sector. The café is funded by a grant from the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative and the services are provided free of charge for attendees.
There are no statistics on how many people have dementia or Alzheimer’s in Armenia. While it is widely believed that roughly six percent of people over the age of 60 have dementia, there is no way of knowing in Armenia since doctors do not regularly screen for either disorder and families usually care for their elderly relatives at home.
In June 2022, the NGO started the first country-wide research project to test volunteers for signs of either dementia or Alzheimer’s and raise awareness of the screening practice in the medical community. To date, 4,000 people have taken part.
"We suggest drawing a clock to understand how a person remembers and orientates himself in time. It seems like a common and very easy task, but not everyone can draw a clock,” explains memory screening specialist Suzy Sargsyan. “When there is a problem, they don't know what to draw, let alone where to place the numbers and arrows. This is a part of the test. We also evaluate the ability to memorize new information as well as write and draw. Finally, we ask logical questions.”
The results of the assessment of nearly 4,000 citizens over 40 years of age have not yet been analyzed, but the general situation is quite worrying, especially in regions, according to the screening team.
"Unlike the problems of other organ systems, which make themselves known by pain and people can turn to the doctor, in this case people say ‘Wow, I got confused, I made a mistake,’” notes Ofelia Kamavosyan, head of the program of the Alzheimer's Care Armenia organization. "A person does not know that he is suffering from dementia and should consult a doctor.”
Psychologist Olya Ghalechyan notes that many families don’t understand that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s require social interaction and care—something they can get at the café.
During their time at the café, clients can listen to music from their youth, play games that stimulate their minds and speak with psychologists, social workers, and doctors.
"A person has the right to live with a bad memory,” notes Ghalechyan. “The purpose of the memory cafe is for people to be with other people. No one should not remain locked between four walls. They should not be ashamed of their relative's illness.”
Dr. Sona Mkhitaryan worked for many years in a nursing home and now helps train doctors in palliative care, including treating patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. ”We have very good neurologists, but primary care doctors, with whom the patient encounters at the initial stage, are indifferent. They consider that dementia is incurable, it is an age change and that's it. But we can change the quality of a person's life, there are reasons that change the situation: pressure, diabetes, healthy food, lifestyle, brain training,” she says. “If a person is aware of the problem, he can fight, find solutions, and slow down the process.”
Neurologist Nura Pepelyan underscores that detection is vital to help slow the development of the disease.
“ If proper care is provided, the development of the disease will be slower, and the person will be able to preserve their memories and abilities for a longer time. Unfortunately, many people do not pay attention to the initial signs. They come and say that their relative lost their memory within a week or a month,” she says. “But it is a slow progress that takes years. A relative notices when the situation has already become complicated. Meanwhile, if there were daily visits to memory cafes or memory classes, abilities and vital skills would be erased more slowly."
For Markos Markosyan, 64, and his wife, Varduhi Chmbtyan, 64, the Memory Café offers a chance to do all those things.
“When we noticed changes in my wife’s behavior, we initially consulted a doctor. He said that Alzheimer's is a disease that will develop and last until the end of her life. Gradually, the situation will become more complicated. Now she has reached the point where she does not recognize me and the children. She sees that I'm always by her side, I take care of her, but she asks me who I am, she can't pronounce the words,” Markosyan says.
He decided to bring her to the café one day to try it, and eventually decided to join her for the activities so she wouldn’t feel alone.
Mariam Badalyan, a social worker of the memory cafe, recalls their first visit.
"Can you imagine, Mrs. Varduhi stared out the window for three hours and waited for him to return. When her husband came, she got up and said with a smile: ‘He is coming.’ Then she hugged me... I didn't know what was happening to me, I was confused,” she says. “Then I realized that she thought that had abandoned her. Later, her husband started keeping her company. The best formula to overcome this disease is love.”
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.