Teaching Those in the Venerable Years – Mental Fitness For Older Adults

I feel caught in our cultural myth that aging is a failure, that if only I did it right I could avoid old age, even avoid death. What a peculiar notion! We have some ideas that as we age we are no longer sexy, vital, juicy. Sometimes when I walk into a room I feel as if I’m invisible, or even worse, an outcast.-Lee Lipp

I’m well aware of the fact that I’m old. By the way, I used to say “old,” but now when I’m asked in interviews, “How old are you?” I reply, “Well, I grew up in China in a time when age was venerated, so I am eighty six years venerable.-Huston Smith

I’ve found that venerating the elderly grounds my teaching for older adults. It’s an attitude of respect, attention, patience and love that makes my teaching rewarding and hopefully of some service. During the late 60′s when it was not hip to trust anyone over 30, I subtly discounted their exquisite value. Luckily, I soon learned to appreciate the wisdom and richness of the older generation while at the same time being able to think for myself.

As a young boy, I found older adults to be fascinating, somewhat mysterious and, when not playing sports or in school, I was very happy in their company. When I was in grammar school, I visited older neighbors who didn’t seem to have younger people around them. One day I was walking past a fairly run-down, large home where “Mrs. Davenport” was pruning some bushes in her front yard. She lived alone, and seemed to be a recluse. She also had the reputation of being a mean shrew, and instilled fear in the kids who sometimes played pranks on her. But on this particular occasion, she asked me if I would help her lift some trimmings into a wheelbarrow, which I did, while casting a suspicious eye on her, remembering some of the children said she was a bona fide witch.

Apart from her unsmiling wizened face, I found nothing sinister about her. Her comments on plants, flowers, trees, squirrels, rabbits, muskrats, dogs and cats started to fascinate me. She never spoke about other people except saying that a group of “lousy boys” had thrown rocks at her dogs. After I finished, she invited me to enjoy freshly baked cookies. That began our friendship. I started visiting her, walking down the long driveway, knocking on her door and gaining entrance into magical conversations about topics new to me. I looked at her photo albums and inspected her “favorite contraptions.” Once I opened a painted music box, inlaid with white-spotted black and orange butterflies–I marveled as the box released a melody that brought such delight to Mrs. Davenport, her face noticeably softened.

Now I find myself revering my older students, as naturally, as happily as greeting my family when they come home from a trip. It’s a joy for me to be with older adults, learning and teaching. I am learning that our brains are elastic, that we can “stretch” our minds just as we stretch our bodies, even as we age. Neuroscientists call this ability of the brain to keep itself fit, “brain plasticity.” The course I teach, through adult school, in convalescent hospitals is called “Mental Fitness.”

In classes with our venerable seniors, we offer exercise (including simple Tai Chi), music and singing, arts-crafts, academics (history-geography; language arts; math life skills), puzzles, lively questions & answers about trivia, video documentaries & educational movies. We create an atmosphere where seniors can stay mentally active, at whatever level may be possible for as long as possible.

Different animals are brought into my class at the convalescent hospital-hospice. Of course some of the clients don’t want to be close to any animal, yet many do and find it great fun and excitement, like having an instant “buddy.” No judgments about being old. The furry ones make many clients feel relaxed, in what can be an alienating, colorless environment. A 93 year old resident is happily interacting with the fat kitty cat; so energizing for her. The animals brighten the classroom.

We discuss health and nutrition. We review studies-such as those by Dr. Andrew Weil-which recommend that seniors include plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, such as blueberries. And to include anti-inflammation vitamin C (found in citrus fruits, beans, oatmeal, enriched pastas, peas, wheat germ, rice bran) and vitamin E (in spinach, sunflower seeds, whole grains, wheat germ); as well as omega-3 fatty acids (in salmon, flax-seed oil, walnuts, supplements that provide these fatty acids). Dr. Weil cites studies from scientists at the University of Irvine (with mice) that show DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) delays the development of protein “tangles” in brain cells and also reduces levels of beta amyloid. (Cf. The Journal of Neuroscience, April 18, 2007)

Research suggests that doing such activities as educational “trivia”, learning a language or playing a musical instrument may help build reserve brain cells to fight against failing mental ability. So we do lots of trivia and word games, both oral and written. We encourage stimulating the imagination, forming mental pictures to associate with information, using the force of our attention and memory, still learning and “connecting,” and “re-connecting.”

Some convalescent homes and senior adult programs have computers, with such programs as “Posit Brain Fitness.” Computers provide effective exercises to sharpen the minds of older adults. I did some of the sessions from a Brain Fitness Course from Posit Science where I and my fellow and sister seniors did different exercises to listen more attentively, to focus and concentrate, to improve our ability to process information and to remember progressively larger amounts of information. For example, we distinguish varying sounds; we remember details from stories. We are experiencing how our brains can change when we are paying attention, how we can improve the speed with which we process information and nudge our ability to communicate more effectively. I’ve done five different exercises: 1. “High or Low?” helps faster sound processing, so the brain can respond even to fast speech in conversation; 2. “Tell Us Apart” gives the brain practice to distinguish similar sounds so it can better interpret the spoken word while storing clear memories; 3. “Match It!” helps the brain remember better, as the brain processes sounds with more clarity; 4. “Sound Replay” stimulates the brain to remember information in the order it’s presented; 5. “Listen and Do” exercises the short-term memory, which is critical in most cognitive tasks related to thinking.

“Dakim’s [m] Power” is another computer-based program which aids in slowing down memory degeneration by “matching” and “word” games, answering questions. Multiple level activities are available: for “high functioning,” for “mild cognition impairment,” and for those with “dementia.” Seniors may review history or geography or watch clips from old movies where they are asked to remember setting, characters, and actions. Some of the hospitals and senior centers use the involving world of the Internet to look up information of interest, e-mail and chat.

Sadly, many of our students already suffer from the brain-clogging plaque (amyloid) and protein tangles of advanced Alzheimer’s and other dementia that greatly limit memory and cognition, and may manifest in behavioral abnormalities. But even Alzheimer’s doesn’t exclude meaningful educational and social interaction, even if it is on a basic level. We continue to reassure, interact, creatively stimulate, listen, be with, teach and learn from. We have some fun and laughter together, even in this drastic-terribly sorrowful-situation of a slow, progressive diminishing of mental capacity.

Our students are often confused, disoriented, incoherent, alienated, angry, withdrawn, in slowly deteriorating conditions. Their words don’t seem to express their thoughts. Some of our students appear “just out of it.” We are aware of changing needs and must adapt, be responsive and understanding. It’s messy sometimes; we accept all of it. These students are losing nerve cells that are associated with learning, judgment, memory. The chemical acetylcholine-which is used by nerve cells to transmit messages-is decreasing dramatically.

One of my students greeted me each morning saying with a perplexed look: “I can’t remember what I forgot to remember to tell you.” Her daughter would visit her in class, but had to tell her each time that she was her daughter. She enjoyed going to class, especially singing and humming old songs; playing catch with a soft ball; listening to stories. However, there were times when she would sit with a blank expression on her face. J. Madeleine Nash writes: “Imagine your brain as a house filled with lights. Now imagine someone turning off the lights one by one. That’ what Alzheimer’s disease does. It turns off the lights so that the flow of ideas, emotions and memories from one room to the next slows and eventually ceases.” (Time magazine, July 17, 2000) Though we cannot stop this process in our students, we do our best to accompany them, continuing to shine lights of caring on them.

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