A Healthy Workout for the Senior Mind
“Dr Amen magically shows us that the aging of our brain need not match the aging of our bodies. The tools he offers to avoid injury to this most precious real estate in our body are priceless and will keep us thinking sharply throughout our progressively longer lives.”
—Mehmet Oz, M.D., Professor and Vice Chair Surgery, New York Presbyterian/Columbia and host of The Dr Oz Show
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A Healthy Brain Workout
Last night I had a call from my friend P. asking if I wanted to go with her to a talk on "Brain Health". I'm interested in layman's 'brain science' and figured that that is what it would be... some information about how the brain works (maybe some sort of brain workout, like sudoku), particularly for older folks since it was being put on by the seniors' association, she said. So I cancelled my usual activities (a two-hour phone call) and set off this morning.
Well, surprise, the workshop was being presented by the local chapter of the BC Alzheimer Society. I could tell by all their brochures laid nicely out on the registration table. Ah well, who knows? I have an Auntie diagnosed with Alzheimer's... I still wanted to learn something about Brain Health-- maybe how to avoid Alzheimer's.
While I waited for P., I glanced through some of the literature on Taking Action for a Healthier Brain. The suggestions for maintaining or improving brain health included:
- be socially active -- hang with positive people and don't let the connections with family and friends go asunder... continue to learn, join interest groups, volunteer, even hold down a job if that gives you pleasure
- have a healthy lifestyle-- basically, dump the junkfood and high fat, high processed foods, get more exercise, keep your blood pressure down, reduce stress, quit smoking and give up the alcohol binges. Diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity are all risk factors for Alzheimer's disease (yikes).
- protect your brain from injuries by wearing a helmet when doing sports like ski-ing, cycling, and skating. Use safety features like handrails to avoid falls. Wear sensible shoes (I added this, it isn't in the brochure), and drive safely while wearing a seatbelt.
- challenge your brain- keep your brain challenged everyday because that actually reduces the likelihood of developing the disease of Alzheimer's. Play games that challenge your mind like sudoku (my husband's fave) or literatii (my facebook word-puzzle game). Don't forget about jigsaws, crosswords, and chess. Another way to challenge your brain is to continue to try something new or the change the way you normally do tasks. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, take a different route around the neighborhood when out walking the dog, learn a language (my husband is doing Grade 11 Spanish and he'll be 61 in November-- he is also a big fan of the Elder College classes that are offered in our community), learn to play the piano or operate an Mp3 device, go to a museum, take a trip, enjoy hobbies.
My friend P. arrived and seemed genuinely surprised that the Alzheimer's Society was sponsoring the event. I assured her that I did not take it as any sort of comment on my own brain function but actually looked forward to hearing about how to maintain and improve my brain health. I expected that there would be a nice little snack around 10a.m. too. I settled into a chair. Very briefly. Suddenly there was a group of women, many about my age, some older, moving with an organizer towards the door. I got up and clubbed with them as well. It seemed we were going on a half-hour walk. P. and I exchanged glances. Sounded okay, but it certainly wasn't what we had expected. We took part in some gentle warm-up exercises, stretching mostly, and then headed out the door into the sunshine for a nice friendly walk along the riverbank of Courtenay. A beautiful sunny warm Fall Day-- the first really pleasant day we've had in weeks. We agreed that the idea to take a walk was genius! P. and I might talk about going for a walk together, but do we? Not usually. This was a blessing.
At some point the leader of the walk (Kim) asked us to (a)think of a name for our walking group and (b)come up with some suggestions as to how we might support caregivers in our community who are looking after folks with Alzheimer's (I hear a woman volunteer say that she was caring for her husband with the disease). P. and I didn't even attempt coming up with a name for the group, but we did begin a dialogue about people we knew looking after loved ones with Alzheimer's and their trials. We agreed that it would be the kind and compassionate thing for us to offer our caregiver friends/acquaintances some time out -- we could look after the 'patient' so our friend could go for a walk or out to dinner with her friends. Back in the circle at the hall there were also other suggestions like bringing the Alzheimer's patient home with you, particularly if you had children around and take the patient out for a drive sometimes.
So, some good ideas to be had. We sat down and prepared for the usual powerpoint presentation. The woman (introduced as Enid Mushypeas, Queen's lady-in-waiting/bodyguard) who stepped up to present had on a clownish ensemble and spoke with a thick Cockney accent... I got that she was going to introduce the idea of humour being a useful element in growing old (with or without Alzheimer's), and, as she pointed out, particularly important to cultivate if we wanted to have excellent caregiving since it is quite likely, given a choice, excellent caregivers will choose to work with positive, easy-going, good-humoured people (with or without Alzheimer's) over curmudgeons. I still waited for the powerpoint to start rolling.
No powerpoint. Instead we were treated to the most entertaining comedic presentation by a woman who purported to be a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, no less, or, as she had it, Lizzy and Phil. She had us in stitches. It was great to look around the circle and see everyone howling with laughter. It was a demonstration of how effective humour is as a learning tool and as a stress-release. How very relieving, too, that we weren't deluged with explanations couched in psycho-pharmacological jargon (the Medical Model), as is humorously illustrated in this youtube video (worth a look if you are in need of a chuckle): http://www.myshrink.com/counseling-theory.php?t_id=89#psychopharmacologist .
The comedic presenter introduced a community resource called "Memories and More" that delivers a 12-week program in the community for those living with dementia, both seniors with dementia and their caregivers. Besides the expected learning strategies and supports, attendees will create a "Memory Book" to help reflect on their lives, loves and beliefs. Using her employer "Phil" as an example, she said that he was able to sit down with his Memory Book and re-acquaint himself with childhood events he'd enjoyed, stories of his heroes, and wartime adventures that he had had. There were also pages of biographies and photos of his old pals (but not his "woman friends" she pointed out, "Lizzie wouldn't have that".) The Center will be open for caretakers who need respite for "appointments, breaks, or an activity arranged on short notice." The costs are very reasonable (example, $10 per person per week for the 12 weekly 2-hour classes and $15 for 2 hours and a sliding fee scale available for persons using the Drop In). There are also opportunities for volunteering and being trained in this program delivery whose key ingredient will be laughter.
So, P and I got up to leave, feeling very satisfied with our little learning foray, de-stressed by all the laughter. But it wasn't to be: a nice young woman named Ann Marie Lisch steps up and tells us about our next activity in brain health called Nia, short for Neuromuscular Integrative Action. Nia developed from a combination of dance, martial arts, and healing arts like yoga and Tai Chi, back in the 1990s.
[Nia] works to build strength, flexibility and balance. Every muscle in the body has neuronal nodal points, memory receptors that are connected to the brain. These receptors help create muscle memory and help store the physical components of emotional traumas (Rossi 1993). In Nia we use the body to heal the mind and spirit by joining muscular movement with introspection, intention, visualization, imagery and expressiveness. Body language and verbal expression are used to help bring forgotten feelings-pleasant and unpleasant-to the foreground of consciousness. from Nia: The Body's Way at InnerIdeas
P. and I were immediately taken up by the jazzy music and the graceful method Ann Marie used to encourage us to begin with the patterns that she showed us (remember: dance, martial arts, yoga and tai chi, all done in a circle with delightful drum jazz music) and move into patterns that were more natural to our individual bodies. Where did we feel we needed to go, what was a pleasurable movement to make? I don't know about others, but I felt like I was a real sylph just going with a sort of natural ability to do ballet and belly dance and maybe even tai chi, what I know of it. This was joyful movement. It turns out that Ann Marie offers classes to seniors in our community (along with classes for other groups of people). I felt so great after the session of Nia that I feel like I may just have tumbled upon an "exercise" technique that suits me in my maturity, a time when I'm pulled among the computer, walking my dog, various volunteer commitments, family, home, garden, and not very inclined to 'exercise' in the conventional sense.
So, again P. began to make our way toward the door, but again, another young woman, called Katherine-or-Kat, asked if we were interested in doing some "Brain Gym". The truth is that I was feeling pretty much like I'd had about as much working out (even though it was truly delightful and fun) as my old out-of-shape body could take in one morning. Katherine-or-Kat quickly added that the Brain Gym exercises could be done in a chair if we wished. We had the option of sitting, standing or sitting and standing, as we were moved. P. and I hauled chairs into the circle (of chairs-- we were not the only ones feeling a little wobbly) and the Brain Gym began. There are many good videos online that will convey the spirit of Brain Gym.
Brain Gym is a physical technique that helps the brain and body work more effectively together to actually help to reduce stress and improve co-ordination, concentration, and self-confidence. The vision improvement exercises help with stability, depth perception and mental awareness. from the video Brain Gym for Senior Citizens-Giving Back Mentoring
Brain Gym for Seniors
So ended our lovely morning of laughter, new learning, lots of exercise, new friends and connections in the community, even prizes (I won a book of sudoku puzzles) and healthy snacks. The Queen's Lady-in-Waiting told us that an attitude of gratitude is also a marker for a healthy brain as we grow into our years. I feel grateful for people in our community who have put together this program and for friends like P. who want to spend time with me trying something new. I'm optimistic about the future as an old person-- it's going to be as fun as I choose to make it!
Alzheimer Society of B.C.
- Alzheimer Society of B.C. -
Alzheimers disease is a progressive degenerative disease destroying brain cells. The Alzheimer Society works nationwide to improve the quality of life for Canadians affected by Alzheimers and advance the search for a cure.