Home Equipping Leaders Older Adults Are Cafés the Leading Edge of Older-Adult Ministry?

Are Cafés the Leading Edge of Older-Adult Ministry?

Three years ago, about the time the Occupy movement hit its heyday, a much smaller movement was starting in the United States—the café movement. Although it received far less publicity, the café movement has continued to grow quietly. Though the name café implies this movement is about food, it is not so much about eating but about relaxed conversation about difficult subjects. As the cafés have grown in number and have spread into more areas, they have grown in variety as well. Today, there are nearly a dozen distinct types of themed cafés, featuring organized discussions in a relaxed atmosphere over finger foods, pastries, or sandwiches about subjects like death, dementia, retirement, and drugs or addiction

The two earliest examples the café movements in the United States were Death Cafés and Memory Cafés and they seemed to have had similar beginning. Death Cafés were born in the world of academic research, but grew in popularity because of social media. Sociologist Bernard Crettaz hosted the first death café in Switzerland in 2004. Crettaz, who has studied the sociology of death extensively, created the first café as a part of his research, merging the idea of a temporary or pop-up restaurant that was popular in his country with his sociological research on societal opinions about death and dying. The first few cafés were so successful that he held similar events in Belgium and France. Jon Underwood, a city official in London, hosted several cafes in and around London. Lizzy Miles, a graduate student and hospice volunteer in Ohio, read a blog written about Underwood’s café and decided to develop the idea in the United States. She wanted to provide a relaxing place where like-minded individuals could meet to talk about specific subjects that are often hard to talk about. Miles said in a 2013 Huffington Post article, “The goal is to raise death awareness with the view of helping people make the most of their lives.” Common discussions among death café groups vary from the speculative to the practical, from what might be on the other side, to how to say goodbye to friends and families, to talk about the writing of living wills or obituaries. As of this writing, there have been some 2, 245 death cafes in 31 countries. To read more, see http://deathcafe.com.

Memory Cafés share a similar growth pattern. The first American memory café was held by Dr. Jytte Lokvig in 2008 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She based her group on the work of Dutch psychiatrist Bere Miesen, who had noticed that dementia was often too touchy a subject even for the family members of those who had memory impairment. As a result, Miesen introduced the memory café idea in Amsterdam. His cafés served as places where family members could gather with loved ones to openly focus on memories and what they retained instead of focusing on what had been lost. The cafés were places to explore art, music, poetry, friendships, socializing, and laughing. In April 2011, the AARP Bulletin brought the concept to the attention of the greater eldercare community by featuring an article titled “Alzheimer’s Café: A Place to Recharge.”

Since the goal of the café movement is to provide a place and time for conversations about difficult topics, a big consideration is providing a relaxed atmosphere where participants feel free to talk. One of the most important elements of both death and memory cafés is the setting. Churches wanting to host cafés should look for a location that has comfortable, relaxed seating and an area for light refreshments. Larger churches might have a lounge area that could be used. It would need to have access to bathrooms and to the outside and parking. In smaller churches, the fellowship hall space could work if it is set up properly. Many churches look to offsite locations -- like local restaurants -- to sponsor these theme cafes.

Another consideration in developing a death or memory café is determining who will moderate the discussion and coordinate publicity for meetings. Once a café has been established, one person can assume both roles; but in the beginning, these roles are best provided for by a committee or by a rotating group of volunteers.

Conflicts may arise among opinionated participants, so a moderator should be someone who is a good listener with at least a cursory knowledge of group dynamics. All moderators should attend training sessions and have a list of referrals of clergy and/or counselors available for those requesting it. The death café movement offers a training and development guide for death café moderators on the website, www.deathcafe.com. The Alzheimer’s Association offers similar training for their facilitators. See http://www.alz.org/greaterdallas/in_my_community_63035.asp. The local Alzheimer’s Association leadership will contact you with available training times when you request information. For memory cafés, volunteers must have knowledge of dementia and caregiver issues as prerequisites. Knowledge of the arts or art therapy is often helpful as well.

A good way for a church to prepare for hosting either type of café is to survey the membership to gauge interest and to determine if there are volunteers who are willing to attend already established cafés to get a feel for them. Experiencing a café as a participant is a great introduction and will help establish interest in bringing it back to the church. While visiting the host café, it is also a good idea to set up a time to talk with the moderator of the group.

Because the café movement really developed through social media, social media sites such as Facebook are a good source of information about cafés in your area. The social media site Meetup may also have death cafés listed for a given local area. This company is usually available to help form a café group in your area, but there is a small monthly expense for their services. Keep in mind that promoting your café through Facebook is free and may be more time effective.

Regardless of whether a church forms a memory café or death café or some other theme café, these cafés provide an excellent avenue for older-adult ministry, particularly for baby boomers. Many aging boomers probably remember their teen years when coffeehouses were popular hangouts where youth could be with like-minded friends. Think of the café movement as a recycling of the coffeehouse concept. They could become a place for older adults to learn and form community. In the case of death cafés, the groups who participate are often multi-generational, providing an opportunity for intergenerational faith formation. This form of older-adult ministry includes the experiences, wisdom, and insight of older adults.

Cafés provide a safe, supportive place and community to share with others some of our deepest struggles, secrets, questions, and burdens. Never underestimate the power of discussion for older adults.

Additional Resources


The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter by Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, World Cafe Community

Powerfully Simple Meetings: Your Guide For Fewer, Faster, More Focused Meetings by Peter Kidd

The Big Book of Icebreakers: Quick, Fun Activities for Energizing Meetings and Workshops by Edie West

Group Dynamics and Team Interventions: Understanding and Improving Team Performance by Timothy M. Franz

At the Edge of Life: Conversations When Death Is Near by Richard L. Morgan


“What on Earth Is a Death Café, The Guardian (March 22, 2014)

“Death Be Not Decaffeinated: Over Cup, Groups Face Taboo,” New York Times (June 16, 2013)

“Death Cafes Breathe Life Into Conversations About Dying,” NPR (March 8, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2013/03/08/173808940/death-cafes-breathe-life-into-conversations-about-dying

“Grab a Drink, Take a Seat and Let’s Talk About Death,” Aging Care https://www.agingcare.com/Articles/death-cafe-grab-a-drink-talk-about-death-159860.htm

“Death Cafes Grow As Places to Discuss, Learn About End of Life,” Huffington Post (February 4, 2013)

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