10 Steps to Keep Aging Brains Active

, Sunrise VP of Memory Care Services  |  July 21, 2011

There is nothing more painful than watching an aging parent's mental agility slowly slip away. We often see this degeneration not only as an inevitable part of getting older, but also as a force we are unable to stop.

However, a plethora of new research now offers tremendous insight into how to keep aging brains active. Just as importantly, it provides us with techniques for delaying or preventing the onset of memory loss and dementia. As caregivers, whether by circumstance or by profession, we have a special obligation to put this valuable information to good use in our caregiving roles.

Much of the advice we hear about urges us to eat nutrient-rich foods, do a puzzle or learn a new language in order to maintain brain fitness. While all true, it makes “staying sharp” the equivalent of getting on a weight-loss program - a daily regimen of chores akin to working out or counting calories.

When seniors get back a sense of control and empowerment, their lives are given a purpose. In return, all the little things they used to do each day that kept their brains active become natural parts of their day again – this is where the real opportunity to recharge aging brains is found. Many experts are calling it "productive aging."

After going through all of life’s major milestones including raising children, career building and managing a home, many seniors lose their sense of purpose. Caregivers can play a vital role in helping seniors rediscover that purpose by following these ten steps:

Step 1: Make a strong effort to reminisce with them about the things they once enjoyed doing but no longer seem interested in. This conversation helps them recall how much passion they used to have about a certain hobby or pastime.

Step 2: Ask them to tell you about one hobby or pastime that they really miss doing. For example, your loved one may have been an avid cook.

Step 3: Be patient; your loved one may refuse to consider a hobby, but don’t give up. You may need to involve yourself more by asking them for their advice and offer to help them reengage themselves. In the example of cooking, you may want to ask them for help in building a collection of recipes.

Step 4: Be persistent in your encouragement. This requires a delicate balance - be a motivating force, but not a commanding one. You want them to feel empowered, not belittled. For your recipe collection, ask them for strategic advice, not for them simply to be your "helper." For example, ask them if the collection should follow a theme or a type of cuisine.

Step 5: Engage in the activity or hobby together. If you are unable to participate consistently, enlist the help of another family member, friend or neighbor to share the job of keeping your loved one’s brain active, especially in keeping an eye out for safety concerns in the kitchen.

Step 6: Show your support and pride through ongoing dialogue. Tell them how you've been bragging to friends and family about their success. You can do this through a number of ways: show them pictures of the different dishes you have made from the collection and encourage your family and friends to share how much they enjoyed the recipes. You could even bring them new dishes you are thinking of adding to the recipe collection and ask for their opinion.

Step 7: Schedule special occasions or events where they can come together with you and other loved ones to showcase and celebrate their achievements. Host a cooking party and enjoy several dishes from the finalized recipe collection, inviting them to be a co-host.

Step 8: Involve grandchildren or yourself in learning how to prepare some of the family’s traditional or ethnic dishes. Swap and share recipes and pictures with extended family via e-mail – this is a great way to help your loved one stay connected with others who may not be able to visit often.

Step 9: Consider documenting these special events by arranging pictures and mementos into a scrapbook. This allows your loved one to reminisce about these happy moments later on, long after the cooking party is over.

Step 10: And lastly, if a particular activity isn't working out or your loved one is no longer inspired by it, don't be afraid to start over with a new one or suggest an alternative to pursue simultaneously. For example, a good companion to cooking is gardening fresh herbs.

You may use these techniques for all levels of memory loss and dementia; however, they are most effective for those in the early stages. In our Sunrise memory care program, we have created a position in each of our communities, nationwide, that we call "Life Enrichment Manager" (LEM). The primary job of an LEM is to work with residents to identify what past activities can be drawn upon to reengage them in more purposeful lives, today.

I remember one man who had a career as a newspaper editor. He still loved keeping up with the news and read several newspapers each day. We decided that a great way to make his hobby even more meaningful would be to have him lead a weekly discussion group on various news topics of the day. By leading the weekly gatherings, he enjoyed a sense of purpose and responsibility. He was not just keeping himself entertained, but also impacting the way others around him understood and kept up with the news. This kind of purposeful life keeps seniors mentally agile and gives them a reason to stay active.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that there are nearly 11 million unpaid caregivers in America who care for those with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. About one-third of those caregivers report symptoms of depression and two out of five say the emotional toll on them as a result of providing care is "high" or "extremely high." The feeling of uncertainty is often a major component of that stress. This type of anxiety is not surprising, as family caregivers rarely have formal training and the new responsibilities can be overwhelming.

By following these steps, family caregivers can begin to regain a sense of empowerment and control over their caregiving duties while engaging their loved ones in enriching activities. There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone you care about find meaning and purpose again.   

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