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A Healthy Workout for the Senior Mind: Caring for the Caregiver

Healthy Aging: An Oxymoron?

A Healthy Brain Workout

A while ago, a friend who was doing some at-home care-giving for her husband who had a terminal illness, called to invite me to go with her to a "workshop about brain health" that she read about in our local paper. Like many "boomers"-- that is, people born in the 1940s to early 1960s demographic-- I am interested in layman's "brain science" where it relates to my being able to make some practical lifestyle adjustments to extend the life span of my brain's health, and, I hope, forego dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
I said "yes" to her offer.
When we arrived I was surprised to find that the workshop was being presented by the local chapter of the British Columbia Alzheimer Society. I have older relatives diagnosed with Alzheimer's and thought that perhaps this would be a way to learn about how to avoid getting that dreadful aging disease.
The brochures laid neatly out on one of the entry tables were labeled: Taking Action for a Healthier Brain. The suggestions for maintaining or improving brain health included:
  • be socially active -- hang out with positive people and don't let the connections with family and friends go asunder. Continue to learn new things, join interest groups, volunteer, and even hold down a job if that gives you pleasure and purpose.
  • have a healthy lifestyle-- basically, eliminate junk food 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.
  • 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 wasn't in the brochure), and drive safely while wearing a seat belt.
  • challenge your brain- keep your brain challenged everyday because that actually reduces the likelihood of developing the disease of Alzheimer's. Play games that stimulate problem-solving, like sudoku (my husband's favorite) or Literatii (my facebook word-puzzle game). Don't forget about jigsaws, crosswords, and chess. Another way to exercise 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 has become fluent in Spanish and is an enthusiastic participant in Elder College classes that are offered in our community), learn to play the piano or join a writer's group, go to a museum, take a trip, enjoy hobbies.

Walking Is Brain Exercise

After reading over the brochure I was excited about the morning's events. 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. My friend and I exchanged glances. It 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. It was 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! My pal 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 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).
My friend Pauline taking a walk in the sunshine along the River Park Trail in Courtenay

Humour Can Get You Over The Hump

My friend and I didn't even attempt coming up with a name for the group, but we did begin a dialogue about people we knew who were 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 taking the patient out for a drive sometimes.
After the walk we returned to the centre and prepared for a 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 care giving 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.
                                                 The delightfully hilarious Enid Mushypeas

Keep The Comedy Coming

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 confusing explanations couched in psychopharmacological jargon (the Medical Model), as is humorously illustrated in this youtube video:



Nia Dancing

My friend 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

NIA demo

The Nia Workout

We 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 (that is, dance, martial arts, yoga and tai chi, all done in a circle with delightful drum jazz music) and moved 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? 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.

Brain Gym for Seniors

We 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"She 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. My friend 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. In the video below you can see how volunteers work with a seniors' group to "give back" some of the gifts they have received from the community themselves.                   

Support For Those Caring For Those With Dementia

Caring for someone with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, or other forms of dementia, can be extremely exhausting. As frequently happens, even well-meaning family supports can fall away leaving the care-giver feeling lonely and isolated. The Alzheimers Association of BC has support groups in place to offer a range of support services and social activities to encourage and promote coping for care-givers. You can find similar support groups and services across Canada here.
Alzheimers and Dementia Support Services for caregivers in the United States can be found here.
Groups for Carers in Australia can be accessed here.
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 who initiate spending time with me trying something new.
If you are a caregiver for someone with an Alzheimers or other dementia diagnosis, I encourage you to check out the resources in your community. If you can not find any groups listed above, speak to your physician (or psychopharmacologist). Perhaps there are others in your community who have also been asking to have a group and you can be a founding member!

**This article originally appeared on the writing community HubPages.


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