July 31, 2018. By Matthew Okaty:
“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”
― L.M. Montgomery
Everyone ages – it’s a fact of life. Many of us will lose our hair, our teeth, our hearing and eyesight. A good sense of humor can help us face the inevitable decline of our physical virtues, but the loss of one’s memory is something entirely different. To lose your memories is to lose a part of yourself as well as those closest to you. It is what many people fear more than dying itself.
As part of Centerpoint’s Year of Giving charitable initiative, I volunteered this past month at the Memory Café in Cambridge, MA. A flyer at a coffee shop first alerted me to its existence. I had never heard of a memory café before and was immediately intrigued. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, a memory café is a welcoming and supportive place for people dealing with memory loss or cognitive decline where you can socialize with others, leave your problems behind for a few hours and explore something new. The idea was first developed in the Netherlands in 1997 by Dr. Bère Miesen, a Dutch psychologist, who understood the importance of social connection when battling Alzheimer’s. Introduced to the United States in 2008, there are now hundreds of memory cafes across the country (including over seventy-five in Massachusetts alone) and is part of a larger movement to destigmatize and raise awareness of dementia.
Each memory café is different, and I was unsure what to expect. I chose to volunteer at the café located in the Cambridge Senior Center in Central Square. The Senior Center holds the café on the third Friday of every month, hosting activities such as music, art, cooking, or just chatting. The day I volunteered we played several games including bingo, dominoes, and even chess. What struck me most was how informal and neighborly it felt, like the bar from the T.V. show “Cheers” where everybody knows your name. It was a small group that day and the participants were apparently regulars, although everyone still wore name tags which helped participants and volunteers communicate more easily amongst the group. There was no pressure to do or say anything, just a comfortable atmosphere where everyone was free to be in the moment. Sitting around the bingo table drinking coffee, conversation and laughter came easily. Time flew by, and when it was time to go everyone said a heart-felt good-bye and genuinely hoped to meet again.
It’s rewarding to be able to make a difference in someone else’s life, particularly those who may be feeling isolated and alone. Volunteering at the Memory Café served as a reminder of just how important basic human acknowledgment and recognition are to a person’s well-being.
It was also encouraging to see the plethora of dedicated services that are available to seniors. The Cambridge Senior Center was a vibrant and lively building bustling with activity. In addition to the Memory Café, it hosts a wide array of services and activities such as computer labs, fitness classes, dancing, book groups, billiards, movies, meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), field trips, health insurance counseling and more. Most of the services and activities are either free or cost a nominal fee and are available to everyone over the age of 60 regardless of income.
To learn more or find similar services in a community near you, please visit:
- The Executive Office of Elder Affairs
- Councils on Aging & Senior Centers
- Directory of Memory Café’s in Massachusetts