Volunteer serves smiles to dementia patients, caregivers




ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Tom Schlaudecker pulls out his autoharp two Thursday afternoons a month and leads guests of the Memory Cafe in singing what he calls "the oldies," popular tunes from the 1940s and '50s.

"I strum my autoharp and they sing along," he said.

Schlaudecker, 76, of Erie, is the coordinator of the cafe at which dementia patients and their caregivers can get a chance to enjoy each other's company in a social setting and meet others. The Memory Cafe, which is free, is open the first and third Thursdays of the month from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie, 7180 Perry Highway, Millcreek Township.

Schlaudecker isn't a caregiver and doesn't have a dementia patient in his family, but he does have a history of recognizing needs and doing something to help others in his Erie community. He said he attends the Unitarian Universalist Congregation and read about other Memory Cafes in the denomination magazine. Before that, he ran the Upper Room, a daytime homeless shelter in downtown Erie.

His leadership of the Upper Room began after he found himself on a "pre-retirement leave of absence" after IBM, where he worked, eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mid-1990s, he said. Schlaudecker started doing jobs on random days through employment agencies.

"It brought in a few bucks but it wasn't really challenging," he said.

He did some work with an overnight Erie homeless shelter, and got the idea that someplace needed to be open here for homeless people to go in the day, after they are required to leave the nighttime accommodations.

The Upper Room opened in 1995 and Schlaudecker served as its volunteer director from then until 2014. He said he never sought an "exalted title" and "thought director was adequate."

After he retired from that unpaid gig, he lasted about a year before taking on his latest role, where he works with about half a dozen other volunteers. They design twice-monthly agendas for the Memory Cafe that include crafts, stories, singalongs, movement activities, snacks and occasional entertainment like this past Thursday's juggler. Six or seven pairs of patients and caregivers typically attend.

"You see smiles on their faces. They're laughing," Schlaudecker said. "We all walk out of there with the feeling that everybody had a good time."

He said that "no clinical stuff goes on" and no questions are asked about a patient's diagnosis. He realizes that the Memory Cafe is "not going to cure anyone" but said that's not why it exists.

"We're trying to make life, as it currently is, enjoyable," Schlaudecker said.

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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com
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