man with dementia/missing puzzle pieces

geralt / Pixabay

Like many people, when it comes to getting older, one of the things I worry about most is that I’ll get Alzheimer’s Disease.

My mother had Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful that until the day she died, she knew who I was. Not everyone is that fortunate. This weekend, I met Donna Davis. She told me that her mother no longer knows her and she also doesn’t talk anymore.

That doesn’t mean Donna doesn’t still try to connect with her mother. She said, “My mom doesn’t know who I am anymore, but let me tell you something, I’ll be talking to her and holding her hand until the end because I don’t know if inside she might know me.”

Donna is passionate about helping older people be as active as they can — whether she’s working their bodies or their brains. As the activities director at Gorham House, she gets plenty of opportunities. She also teaches a Gorham Adult Education class on brain fitness.

Brain fitness

Since I am highly sensitive to my own brain health, I asked Donna for some tips. She said that one of the things she has noticed is that as we age, we often tend to do the same types of activities and follow the same routines.

We need to change things up a bit and exercise our brain so it will be healthy. Donna has all kinds of suggestions for working different areas of the brain. The foundation for her program comes from Suzanne Fitzsimmons, who wrote a book called.

When she’s working with residents, the activity depends on the person’s cognitive ability. For instance, she might put some items on a tray, have them study the items for several minutes, cover the tray and ask them to recall what they saw. “I always think of the group I have,” she said. “How many items I put on the tray will depend. I don’t ever want anyone to think they can’t do something.”

The people who attend her adult ed class are usually in my category. If we forget someone’s name or where we put something, we’re terrified we have dementia. It never bothered us when that happened at age 40, but it’s another story at age 60 or 70.

She begins her class with a greeting and deep breathing exercises. “Because you’ve got to get that oxygen up to your brain,” said Donna. “Breathe in, breathe out.”

She then warms them up with a short brain exercise — counting backward by threes from 100 to 0. A memory exercise, like finishing a phrase. Or Brooke’s ABC game, which was inspired by her granddaughter.

You might remember the game from your own childhood. Pick a letter from the alphabet and  fill in the blanks. I’ll pick S. Hello, my name is Sally. My husband’s name is Sam. We live in Savannah. We sell strawberries from our garden. Try doing that quickly with a group of people or run through the alphabet on you own. You have to slow down and focus — use your brain!

She then adds an educational component. She’s always on the lookout for a good article to share. Something new to learn. Last week Donna brought in an article about different types of  memory lapses, which the class discussed. An important topic, because a memory lapse doesn’t automatically mean you have dementia. Some examples:

  1. Absent-mindedness. Do find it’s likely to happen when you’re not paying attention?
  2. Forgetting things over time. Think of it as the brain cleaning house to let in new information.
  3. Blocked memory. It’s right there on the tip of your tongue. Happens to me all the time!
  4. Power of suggestion. When, for some reason, your brain is fooled into believing something you didn’t experience.

Certain medications, illnesses and stressful situations can also cause memory problems.

Donna Davis/brain/memory fitness

She not only works on memory, she also does exercises that focus on other areas.

For body awareness, which includes motor function and coordination, the class might play a game of jacks or chopsticks or rub their stomachs and pat their heads at the same time. I could never do that one!

Sensory function is one area, the class has had a lot of fun with, said Donna. “Putting things in a bag, having you feel it guessing what’s in there.  Tasting. I went to Haven’s once and got all of the most exotic jelly beans. You get the popcorn, the Dr. Pepper, so everyone would taste one and say what it is.”

You could also try to guess sounds, smells, textures. Or do pantomimes.

“In one class, I passed out all these cards,” she explained.  “One was to pretend you’re vomiting. One student was so funny. He took the trashcan and got right down on the floor and started vomiting. Everyone is asking ‘Nauseous? Sick? We were all laughing. Lots of times people will stop in and want to know what the laughing is all about.”

Resilient brains

Getting old and the fear of losing your memories and other functions is not a laughing matter for many people. I’m encouraged by research that shows our brains may be more resilient than we think.

There’s no proof that brain fitness will stave off dementia or even make our brains more healthy. But if Donna and her class are any indication it certainly can’t hurt.

Whenever I try to use my brain in a different way, even to brush my teeth with a different hand or learn something new, I aways feel better. Add a touch of laughter, being around other people in the same boat as use, and it’s bound to help your brain  — and your attitude.

And don’t forget to get regular exercise. Try going for a walk every day. Keeping the rest of your body fit is also critical for your brain health.