There is nothing more painful than watching your aging parent's mental agility slip slowly away. So often we view this degeneration as an inevitable part of getting older -- a force we are incapable of stopping.
Yet a flood of new research has offered tremendous insights into how to keep our aging brains active and how to delay or prevent the onset of memory loss and dementia. As caregivers, by circumstance or by profession, we have a special obligation to translate these new understandings into action.
Much of the advice out there for maintaining brain fitness involves telling us to eat nutrient-rich foods, do a puzzle or learn a new language. While all true, it makes brain fitness the equivalent of getting on a weight-loss program -- a daily regimen of chores akin to working out or counting calories.
The real opportunity to recharge aging brains comes through redelivering to seniors their sense of control and empowerment -- a purpose to their lives for which doing all the things that keep their brains active become natural parts of their days again. Many experts are calling it "productive aging."
After children are grown, careers end, houses are sold, many seniors lose their sense of purpose. Caregivers can play a vital role in helping seniors rediscover that purpose by the following these eight steps:
Step 1: Reminisce with them about the things they once did but no longer seem interested in doing. This conversation helps them recall how much passion they used to have.
Step 2: Ask them to tell you about one hobby or activity that they really miss doing. One example might be gardening.
Step 3: Don't give up when they say they refuse to consider one. In many cases, you may need to involve yourself more by asking them for their advice and offer to help them reengage themselves. In the context of gardening, you may want to ask them for help in starting a garden for yourself.
Step 4: Be persistent in your encouragement. Be a motivating force, but not a commanding one. You want them to feel empowered. For your garden, ask them for strategic advice, not for them simply to be your "helper."
Step 5: Engage in the activity or hobby with them. If you are unable to participate, enlist the assistance of another family member, friend or neighbor.
Step 6: Show your support and pride through ongoing dialogue. Tell them how you've been bragging to friends and family about their success. Show them pictures of the garden, bring them some of the harvest and invite them to share with others around them.
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 harvest party for your garden and make them a co-host.
Step 8: If a particular activity isn't working out, don't be afraid to start over with a new one or suggest an additional one to pursue simultaneously. A good companion to gardening could be cooking.
You may use these techniques for all levels of memory loss and dementia but are most effective for those in the early stages. At Sunrise Senior Living, we actually just created a new position in each of our communities nationwide called "Life Enrichment Managers" whose sole job is to work with residents to identify what past activities can be drawn upon to reengage them in more purposeful lives.
I recall one story of a man who used to be a newspaper editor. He still loved reading the news -- 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 news topics of the day. The weekly gatherings gave him a greater sense of purpose and responsibility. He was not just keeping himself entertained, but impacting the way others around him understand and kept up with the news. It's this kind of purposeful life that 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 look after 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. A major component of that stress is often the feeling of uncertainty. Family caregivers rarely have formal training and the new responsibilities can be overwhelming.
Family caregivers that follow the above steps can begin to regain their own sense of empowerment and control over their care-giving duties. There is nothing more enriching than helping someone you care about find meaning and purpose again.