Annual Report 2023: Amplifying respite opportunities through community

Flo at WFCFA

Pictured: Flo, a Musical Memories café regular, with some photos of her fellow attendees

This story first appeared in our 2023 annual report. 

What does it take for a project or program to grow to the next level of impact and scale? If you asked the team at West Falls Center for the Arts, they’d tell you it takes a great idea, an engaged community, and funders that serve as learning partners.

West Falls’ Musical Memories Café is a place for caregivers and their loved ones to come together to enjoy socializing, refreshments, and entertainment by local musicians. In 2020, the café was part of the first cohort of Exhale, the Family Caregiver Initiative, a funding partnership between the Health Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to help boost respite opportunities in western New York.

Participants with dementia, hearing familiar music from their younger years, overwhelmingly respond positively, while their caregivers enjoy their loved one’s company in a stress-free and joyful environment. But it’s not just about the music; attendees also find a community to rely on and get connected to other services that can help them.

“When I see that we are at max capacity every time, and that we could do this every day of the week, it shows me how valuable this program is and how it needs to continue to grow,” says Carolyn Panzica, Executive Director of West Falls Center for the Arts.

Carolyn notes the café now has a community of “regulars,” including a frequent attendee, Flo, who takes pictures of the families at each table, prints the photos and gives them to each family to keep.

The program has already spread to an additional four locations in western New York. The team has plans to keep that momentum going by building a model for replication that will help other community organizations launch Musical Memories Cafés of their own.

The West Falls team says one of the greatest benefits of participating in Exhale was the opportunity to engage with New York Academy of Medicine to evaluate the program’s impact.

The September – March 2022 evaluation discovered that:

  • 100 percent of participants would recommend the memory café.
  • Caregiver needs dropped during the evaluation period.
  • 100 percent of the caregiver experience outcomes that were measured improved.
  • The number of caregivers with ‘red flag’ status—meaning very high levels of need or stress—decreased through participation.

If you talk to the caregivers and other participants at West Falls, the impact is clear.

Flo, who has attended the café since its earliest days, says the live music adds a special element for participants.

“The music brings their inner being out,” she says.

“This is a chance to see your loved one in a different light,” explains Mary Carol, who attends with her husband and his uncle, and brings her mother to a different café location.

“This program builds resiliency among the participants,” says Steven Harvey, who works with Musical Memories Café on their evaluation and replication efforts. “We’re helping them clarify the future and access community resources. We do a lot in the background to support families and build community.”

These impressive outcomes caught the attention of caregiver experts nationally when ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center named the Musical Memories Café as one of four Innovative and Exemplary Services for 2024 in the U.S. In addition to this exclusive recognition, the team also presented their achievements at ARCH’s national conference in May 2024.

“The support from Exhale did a number of things to help the program,” explains Steven. “The funders did not act as ‘big brother’ looking over our shoulder. It was a partnership.”

For Nancy, a caregiver to her partner Frenche, the café was life-changing after only two visits.

“This program made me feel alive again,” she shares. “It’s a miracle.”