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Sian Turner (R) with her 82 year old mother Glenys Newman-Smith who has Alzheimer's disease at her home in Antigonish, February 8, 2011. They participate in a weekly Alzheimers Cafe which brings people afflicted with Alzheimers and their family members together.Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail

It's a café where the most important offering isn't on the menu.

Several dozen people gathered recently in this town a few hours northeast of Halifax at the country's first Alzheimer Café, a model of support increasingly widespread in Europe.

The idea is to bring together people with Alzheimer's disease, their caregivers and members of the public in a non-institutional setting that feels like a regular café, with food, drink and entertainment. There is a short information session, but the goal is explicitly social.

The last factor is crucial to the model and ultimately what separates it from more traditional support groups. Organizer Elizabeth McGibbon notes that people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia can easily become housebound because of embarrassment or fear.

"It's about getting out of the house in an emancipatory way," says Dr. McGibbon, a nursing professor in the faculty of science at St. Francis Xavier University, who is assisting this project on a voluntary basis. "We often have a situation where people stay home. It can be very difficult to get people with dementia to go out in public. Social interactions are very, very difficult."

The result is increased isolation that can accelerate mental decline.

Sian Turner came to the event with her 82-year-old mother, who was diagnosed five years ago with Alzheimer's.

"She had a lot of fun and obviously enjoyed herself," Ms. Turner says. "She doesn't get out at all. [This is]a place we can all go together. I don't want to go places where they might be unsympathetic."

Experts in the field say that a substantial social stigma remains against those with dementia. Even well-meaning people might not be sure how to react to them. And issues as basic as going to a public toilet can raise problems if assistance is needed from a caregiver who is of a different gender.

Alzheimer cafés started in Netherlands 14 years ago, and are now so ubiquitous no resident of the country is said to be more than nine kilometres from one. Such cafés have also gained ground in the United States and across Europe. It was in Britain, where they are often held in pubs, that St. Francis Xavier nursing student Danielle Martensson was exposed to the idea.

She was 12 and brought to the café by her mother and stepfather, who thought it would be an interesting experience. At that point, Ms. Martensson had a negative view of people with dementia, having been told by a teacher that they could be erratic, even violent. But concerns about the condition she'd always thought was "fearful" were quickly dispelled.

"Everyone was enjoying each other and they were civil with each other and it was a fantastic environment," she says. "They weren't scary. They were people too."

Ms. Martensson was exploring the concept of Alzheimer cafés for an honours project and ended up as a volunteer on the steering committee. The group in Antigonish did a soft-launch of the concept in January and held its second event on Feb. 4 in a local school. The official opening is early next month.

Elements of these cafés are used across Canada, but the one being established in Antigonish is the first formal example of the model.

"I like the idea of the informal [Alzheimer Café]myself," says David Harvey, who works in public policy with the Alzheimer's Society of Canada. "But maybe doing it formally will almost be a demonstration of how this can be done. And perhaps people will pick up ideas and create informal ones."