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Mind matters: Scarborough seniors learning to exercise their brains

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Mind matters: Scarborough seniors learning to exercise their brains

SCARBOROUGH — Take a white piece of paper. Add a drop of black ink. Fold and press. Then tell the group what it looks like.

Although residents of Scarborough Terrace might seem unlikely candidates for inkblot tests, the session was part of a "Brain Fitness" program that will resume and possibly expand in November.

"I see a pear with a little tail on it," Al Sampson said as he held his paper up for display. Others saw Christmas ornaments or insects as they shared their impressions.

"It looks like the inside of something," Joy Reid said of her image.

Led by Ginger Lynds, the life enrichment director at the assisted living center, the program was established to help residents keep alert and aware, and to ward off dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

“We are not going to regain any memory we have lost,” Lynds told 10 residents at an Aug. 27 session. "It is about getting you to see and think differently and keeping your brain engaged.”

September is World Alzheimer's Month, a time to consider the affects of the disease, which attacks neurons, the brain's nerve cells, as the primary cause of dementia. Dementia is defined by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America as "a loss of intellectual function."

About 5.3 million people are affected by Alzheimer's nationally, including 37,000 families in Maine. But brain cell loss can be slowed by staying engaged through reading, crossword puzzles or playing cards, according to the foundation.

Lynds' 75-minute sessions are filled with exercises and activities to progressively stimulate brain functions. The program template is drawn from a seminar by "Brain Fitness" author Suzanne Fitzsimmons.

“After talking with the residents and hearing about their daily struggles and frustrations because of memory loss, I wanted to do something to help them,” Lynds said.

Inclusion in the class requires an eight-week commitment and the willingness of participants to stretch their comfort zones.

As one session concluded, Lynds asked the group to listen to two songs and draw impressions from the music. Several wrote what came to mind, others did not like their sketches.

“I was going to draw some boys, but I only got one done,” Louise Kenny said after hearing Johnny Cash sing "Tennessee Flat Top Box."

Lynds appreciated the feedback she got throughout the sessions, but not all of it was positive.

"I think the hard part is their expectations," Lynds said. "I had to remind them a lot that this would not bring their memory back."

"Brain Fitness" outlines 150 activities to keep mentally sharp, and was a change from the physical exercises Lynds leads.

"We don't understand exercise for the mind and what we get from it," Lynds said.

The sessions began with greeting exercises and discussions about brain functions, before mental warmups and low-impact physical exercises.

Then it was on to the fun and games, like a scavenger hunt for items and personal qualities readily or not so readily visible.

The best smile in the room was chosen by acclimation; it belonged to resident Victoria Gill. Finding specific footwear proved confounding.

“I don't know who has sneakers on, I don't look at anybody's feet,” Joy Reid said.

Following the scavenger hunt, Lynds handed out paper bags to the group.

"You thought I brought lunch, didn't you?" she teased.

But lunch turned into an exercise for stimulating the sense of touch, as the group members were asked to reach into the bag and identify items without looking at them.

Ann Barnicle went first, pulling out a Yo-Yo she identified with ease.

Rubber duckies, dice, maracas and paint brushes emerged as Lynds went around the room.

“It's a creamer, and what I use, too,” Kenny said as she held out a plastic container.

The exercises led to some unanticipated sharing, too.

"I was learning more about them as they shared their memories, when they were school children or their first kiss," Lynds said. "I'd like people to be aware we have to keep our brain healthy too."

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.