When you are dealing with mild cognitive impairment, there’s always this question of, are you seeing the glass half full or half empty?
Do you dwell on what you can no longer do because of your MCI, or on what you still can do?
Well, negative thoughts can only drag you down, so yes, focusing on the positive is better.
But today, I’m urging you to go one step beyond that, and focus not just on what you can do, but what you can do for others.
Hi, I’m Tony Dearing, of GoCogno.com, the website for people with mild cognitive impairment.
What got me thinking about today’s topic is a conversation I had with Cheryl Stevenson, who is a friend and colleague of mine. Well over a decade ago, when she was still in her 40s, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That diagnosis was later changed to mild cognitive impairment, and in all the years since then, she’s been able to stabilize her MCI and continue to lead a productive, meaningful life. (You can read Cheryl’s blog here.)
Cheryl and I have gotten close over recent years because we are administrators together in a private Facebook group for people with MCI. So we interact pretty much every day.
But I recently learned something about Cheryl that I didn’t know. For the past couple of years, she has been involved in a community service program called “Senior Companions,” where she visits elderly people at their home on a weekly basis, to provide companionship, or just to sit and talk with them, or play board games. In fact, one of the things she does it take one of the women to a nursing home where the woman is able to visit her husband, who has dementia.
And I think that’s fantastic, not just because Cheryl is brightening the life of others, but because of how it brightens her life too.
“These ladies are so genuine and sweet; they appreciate anything you do for them,” Cheryl told me. “I joined this program to help other people, to make a difference in their lives. What I didn’t expect is the difference they’ve made in my life.”
The reason I’m taking about this is because volunteer work, if you’re able to do it, is hands down, one of the most cognitively beneficial things that someone with MCI can do.
Unfortunately, people with MCI don’t necessarily think that they are capable of doing volunteer work. MCI can tend to isolate people in their homes, and people with MCI sometimes are not confident of their ability to handle a situation they’re not as familiar with.
But volunteer work may be more possible than you realize. It was for Cheryl.
In this particular program, she has four women she sees, and she spends about three hours a week with each of them, so 12 hours a week in all.
The program is a good fit for Cheryl. She says, “I’m very much an outgoing person, and an extravert. I thrive when I’m interacting with people.”
Now here is one thing that I find very interesting. Neither the people who run the program nor the elderly women who Cheryl visits know that she has mild cognitive impairment. It’s something that she chooses not to tell them.
“My concern with MCI is that when I meet new people, I don’t reveal my diagnosis,” she says. “I don’t want them to know what I have. I want them to know me.”
But her MCI clearly does not prevent Cheryl from being effective in this form of community service. In fact, the women she visits are regularly asked to evaluate her and she says, “My boss tells me, ‘You couldn’t be rated any higher.'”
A couple of things that I should mention here. First, this program, which I’m including a link below, pays a small stipend, so it’s technically not volunteer work. But Cheryl would do it even without the pay. As a matter of fact, when one of the women she was visiting previously had to go into a nursing home and was no longer eligible for the program, Cheryl continued to visit her on her own.
And, of course, during the coronavirus crisis, the program had been suspended, because it’s not safe for people to have that kind of face-to-face contact.
But Cheryl is looking forward to resuming those visits when she safely can, and that time will come.
When we’re all able to safely go out into the world again, maybe that could be an opportunity for you to consider volunteering, if you don’t already. Don’t sell yourself short. It may be something you’re able to do. And the opportunities are out there.
A while ago, I talked about a wonderful program in Philadelphia where people with MCI who are being treated at the Penn Memory Center are recruited to spend time with sick children at the nearby Children’s Hospital, reading them stories or coloring with them.
Could you do something like that? Maybe. It would certainly make a difference in someone else’s life, and in your life too.
I hope it’s something you’ll consider. And I hope to see you again next week. Until then, as always, be kind to your mind.
(For more information on the Senior Companion program, visit the website here.)