Cognitive decline in older adults has been accepted as a normal part of aging. Recall, episodic memories, processing speed, and divided attention are all expected to decrease with time, but the implications of this decay are rarely discussed. Elderly scholars, or individuals who have sought to learn about the world or facets of the world through books, articles or newspapers, often are devastated by this cognitive decay. But, what if there was a way to combat this decay?
As a hospice volunteer, I visit Amanda, an individual who lives in an underserved nursing home. Amanda traveled the world as a journalist. Her sharp and vivid memories of Bali and Austria fill up the austere two-bed room in her long-term care facility. With her witty humor and expressive personality, it was unfathomable that she could not connect with anyone in a suburban care facility. Amanda is one of the millions of older adults who actively sought knowledge during her life but now are entirely isolated from the world, her loved ones and even books My visits with Amanda taught me that this decline is often accelerated by a wide array of potential reasons.
Vision loss has shown to affect one in three people over the age of 50, and this number climbs with age. If a scholar like Amanda is unable to connect with the people around him or her, the next source of belonging comes from reading. However, the loss of vision, whether through age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts or any other vision-related disease immediately removes this option of obtaining information. Many individuals like Amanda cannot even access any type of treatment due to small insurance-related issues. When a scholar has sought to learn more every day for their entire lives, losing vision prevents learning and leads to feelings of stagnation and worthlessness.
Studies have shown that older adults exhibit involvement of more widespread brain regions for motor control than young adults, but these same regions are more vulnerable to age-related effects, leading to decreased motor control. Without the ability to freely move, it becomes nearly impossible to read and learn for scholars. Sadly, Amanda also falls into this group of individuals as well due to inability to move either of her arms or straighten her legs. She must be pushed around the care facility in order for her to engage with anyone or anything.
Whether due to vision loss or lack of motor control, the inability to take in information then leads to the most significant issue for scholars: a lack of cognitive stimulation. This inactivity further progresses the cognitive decay. Due to the perception by the staff that these individuals just watch soap operas, game shows or sit all day, scholars are deprived of any activity that will allow them to use their brains. This, as Amanda describes it, leads to “watching my brain rot before my eyes.”
It is imperative for family members and friends to step up to this challenge to assist our loved ones in long-term care facilities and those at home who may be feeling cognitive decay. After seeing this for weeks on end when visiting Amanda, I knew I had to try something. I started small and tested various ideas.
The activities that worked best were games that tested recall and creativity. Knowing Amanda’s history and interests, I would tell her to set a timer for one minute and would ask her to name as many countries as quickly as she could. After 30 seconds, we had 12 countries down along with a fresh spark in her eyes. We went on for an hour of picking random categories from exotic fruits to movies. After each round, we dissected what her approach was and how she could get more points if she adjusted it. Amanda was happy. At the end of the visit, she asked if we could do this every week.
Through this experience, the importance and the practicality of keeping our elderly scholars cognitively engaged became clear. Simple activities that activated memory recall and analytical skills refresh the minds of scholars and help them engage their minds, regardless if they are losing their vision, mobility or both. These activities in short and consistent bursts will help us revitalize our elderly scholars and will initiate change in how scholars age.
Harsh Moolani is an undergraduate student.
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