Class helps older adults stay on their toes
In the warmly lit ceramics classroom at the North Berkeley Senior Center, a group of older adults attentively watch as the instructor starts off a memory improvement class by writing three words and an abbreviation with no apparent association on the board.
“SWIMS, NOON, MOW, SIS.”
As soon as instructor Phyllis Pacin turns to the eight students and asks what the four words have in common, she is pelted with possible solutions to the riddle.
“There are vowels in the middle of each word,” one person says.
“Each word begins and ends with a consonant and the same letter...” another starts to say and then realizes she is almost right.
Then after a short silence, and a bit of coaxing from Pacin, student Jeremy Batkin, 80, hits the nail on the head: “They spell the same words upside down as right side up.”
The class is called Playing With Our Minds and is designed to keep older adults mentally active by increasing memory, verbal expression and visual awareness, according to a flier for the class that meets every Tuesday.
According to the American Society on Aging, adults who are otherwise healthy can begin to experience memory lapses after the age of 50.
Connie Lynch, a former microbiologist, who has instructed a mental exercise class at the El Cerrito Senior Center for the last 15 years, said that seniors who occasionally forget where they put the car keys or their best friend’s name while making an introduction can lose confidence.
She said often their confidence is further eroded by younger adults who “treat them like they’ve lost it because they have a few gray hairs.”
Lynch said that by staying mentally active, older adults can improve they memories. “Just like your muscles, you can make your brain better by working hard and solving problems and trying new things,” she said.
Lynch said she was inspired to organize her class in 1986 when she read a UC Berkeley study that examined brain development in lab rats. The study compared rats who were kept in a stimulating environment that included ladders and tunnels to explore, and other rats to socialize with to rats who were merely fed and watered.
The study showed the mentally stimulated rats not only had more developed brains, compared to the “couch potato” rats but they lived longer as well.
Lynch said mental stimulation can include simple things like having to describe a paper clip using all five senses but without describing what its purpose is. “An exercise like that forces you to think in detail and in a different way than most of us are used to,” she said. “And the more detail you know about something the more you’ll remember about it.”
She said these exercises help to heighten awareness which can be important to the safety of many seniors. “It helps you to pay attention to your environment which makes you less likely to trip on a crack in the sidewalk or over child’s toy tricycle or walk into the street against a traffic light.”
Pacin said she engages her North Berkeley Senior Center class with creative projects designed to focus their attention, senses and creativity. “We will listen to music and discuss what the melody evokes or I’ll have them write about a place they’ve been that they liked or didn’t like,” she said. “And instead of simply saying ‘I just loved going there’ they’ll describe the place in a way that will bring the reader there.”
On Tuesday the students were instructed to pair off and describe what they did on the Fourth of July. After about five minutes each student recounted to the class what their partner did. The exercise helped students listen actively and focus and remember details in order to communicate to the rest of the class.
The exercise also appeared to stimulate a lively and interesting conversation. The group quickly covered a variety of topics that ranged from their Fourth experiences to Baptist weddings vs. non-traditional weddings on hippie communes to whether there is a God to a anecdote about a senior (who was not present in the class) smuggling a snake across the Canadian border in her hat.
Pacin, who has taught ceramics to seniors for the last 10 years at Pleasant Valley Adult School in Oakland, said that part of the class is the social aspect.
Marilyn Kessinger, 73, who was attending the class for the first time, said she really enjoyed the class. “It’s a very stimulating class,” she said. “I like the problem solving and Phyllis has a lot of energy and a good sense of humor.”
For more information about the Playing With Our Minds class call the North Berkeley Senior Center at 510-644-6107. Classes are free and meet at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays.