“Continue to socialize and stay engaged,” they say.
By “they”, I am referring to the experts—this advice is echoed by physicians and therapists, websites, and all the books dealing with memory and/or cognitive loss or decline.
I, however, feel there needs to be a caveat added to this piece of advice. Something like: Continue to socialize, until socializing itself is causing you too much stress…
I certainly believe it is important during memory decline to stay engaged and participate in as many social and community activities as possible. At the same time, since the progression of memory loss can often be gradual and extend over a long period of time, I think it is equally important not to drop or alter one’s social activities based solely on a diagnosis of MCI.
I was diagnosed with memory decline almost ten years ago, but it was only five years ago that I felt the need to resign from my community activities and boards. My decision was based on when I began having trouble understanding financial reports, chairing committee meetings, and started forgetting significant items and tasks. This was also at the stage and time where I was first willing to talk about my condition, without shame or embarrassment.
Over these past five years I’ve slowly altered many aspects of my life, especially in the area of socializing. While I still enjoy going to the movies, attending musical performances, and attending our University’s Senior Classes—I avoid large social events where conversation is the focus, as I can no longer engage in conversations as easily I could in the past. I feel far more discomfort when interacting with new acquaintances, as I often forget the name of the person I’m talking with, along with my train of thought; words escape me or get stuck, and because my world has shrunk, I find I don’t have much to add to most conversations.
I understand the standard recommendation for people with memory loss is to “stay engaged,” but in the traditional sense, this doesn’t work for me. When I hear that advice, I feel an underlying pressure to keep fitting into my community in the same ways I once did, but those ways no longer feel good. Crowds and the din of voices stress me, so I do my best to avoid them.
To some it may seem as if I’ve pulled back too much or spend too much time alone…but I adamantly disagree. I am perfectly comfortable with my current degree of socialization. I have a number of friends who often drop by just for coffee and a chat, and college friends who live within driving distance frequently come for a weekend stay. My daughter, son-in-law, and three “grands” live within a ten-minute drive and we share time and meals together on a regular basis.
What I’m trying to say is I don’t think there is one “universal formula” for what degree of activity and engagement is best for all people who experience memory loss. The experts have their opinions, but each person is unique and each situation is fluid. What worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow. For me, I enjoy my own company and intimate friends, and that’s sufficient.
But as I’ve learned with MCI—everything can change, and that’s alright too!