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Tampa Bay area restaurants open doors to 'Dementia-Friendly Dining'

The program allows people living with memory loss disorders to have positive dining experiences without feeling embarrassed or overstimulated.
Credit: Dementia-Friendly Dining
Dementia-Friendly Dining at The Meatball Stoppe

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Some Tampa Bay-area restaurants are adding patience and inclusivity to the menu through a Florida organization offering a unique dining experience.

It’s called “Dementia-Friendly Dining,” and it’s working to bring a bit of normalcy to the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s and other memory-related illnesses.

Founder Dennis Dulniak was inspired by his wife, Nancy, to start the program in January 2020. A lifelong educator and librarian, Nancy was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015.

"Kindness and compassion are so essential for caregivers, which I was a caregiver for seven years for my wife before she passed,” he said. “You’re trying to understand where they are today, and you create opportunities to have memories created with good experiences. That’s why Dementia-Friendly Dining is there – to make positive moments and memories."

Here’s how the program works.

Dulniak partners with local memory care experts to train a restaurant’s servers in how to best interact with those living with memory loss disorders. He even gives them a card with the most important Dementia-Friendly Dining reminders to keep in their order books.

Credit: Dementia-Friendly Dining
Dementia-Friendly Dining reminders for servers

Those servers then accommodate people with dementia and their loved ones in a certain area of the restaurant during a designated block of time, typically during slower hours.

“I want that slow period to be at least once a month, once a week so that there is a standard when people who have loved ones with dementia can go in and feel comfortable and confident that they’re going to have a quality experience," Dulniak said.

After a hiatus during the pandemic, Dementia-Friendly Dining restarted in May 2022 — this time with even more restaurants on board. Now, the program is expanding into Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Dulniak is working with the Madonna Ptak Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Memory Disorders Clinic in Clearwater. Through the state’s Dementia Care & Cure Initiative, the clinic works to advocate for people with Alzheimer’s and related dementia and reduce the stigma around the disease.

Celisa Bonner, licensed clinical social worker and the clinic coordinator at the center, explained that eating out can be stressful and overstimulating for people with Alzheimer's, so they often stay home instead – which can contribute to the progression of the disease.

A program like Dementia-Friendly Dining "is going to enhance that person's dignity and quality of life because of socialization and reducing isolation and depression," Bonner said.

Soon, Dementia-Friendly Dining will be available at Okeefe's Tavern in Clearwater. And Bonner is already working with several other Tampa Bay area restaurants to incorporate the program.

Dulniak is constantly promoting education and acceptance of memory loss disorders. In honor of Nancy’s career as a librarian, Dulniak and his sons also started Nana’s Books Foundation to provide books about dementia and other disabilities to Title I schools around the country.

Those with questions about Alzheimer's and dementia care can visit the Madonna Ptak Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Memory Disorders Clinic website or call 727-298-6025.

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