Monday, July 1, 2013

Brain Spa

This was a really moving visit.

How do we prevent or delay cognitive impairment?
It turns out that almost a fifth of elderly Israelis (65+) suffer from cognitive impairment and dementia.  Since our brains are flexible and we can learn new skills, (well, you know, so they tell me), you can treat people and prevent further deterioration.

I went to see how we can help elderly Israelis suffering from cognitive deterioration. JDC-ESHEL has a workshop teaching new skills and exercises to stimulate the brain, enhance cognition and improve memory. 

"Brain Spa" is at ten day care centers for the elderly.
The staff from each center take part in a 40 hour training course to become program facilitators, and they lead weekly workshops over the course of nine months involving discussions, imagination, movement, coordination and the use of computers for exercises. Participants’ cognitive functioning is evaluated before and after completion of the program.

The average age in Shilo HaCarmel Elderly Day Center in Haifa, a longstanding JDC partner, is 85. There are some 100 participants who come for a full day of activities, and Brain Spa is the JDC-Eshel program we’re launching there. It’s part computer-program and part therapy group. I went to the therapy group to chat with the participants.

I’m sitting in a quiet relaxed room with seven lovely women.

We’re doing some deep-breathing and relaxation exercises, a bit of meditation with our eyes closed, and the madricha (counselor) has some (very) relaxing music in the background. 
We go all over the body, relaxing muscles.

When we’re back together and awake (who nodded off? I'm proud to report that I stayed awake, comfortable though it was) we have a chat with the ladies.

Everyone laughs when I start talking to them in Hebrew (they were expecting an American visitor but didn’t know I’m from Israel too). Photographs of small children are passed around, my marital status is discussed, and my "elegant" Hebrew intonation and vocabulary are praised and corrected at the same time.

And then we go round and talk about what we thought about when we were meditating. Rachel, who’s sitting across from me, tells the group that last week she fell at home, had to go to hospital. “I was in pain and they put me on a stretcher there. My feet were cold. The stretcher-bearer spoke all the time in Arabic and ignored me, so at one point I said to him, chamud (sweetie), can you help me with my shoes. It’s the first time in seventy years that I've said ‘kondara’ (shoes) … I've forgotten that word since I was a little girl. But I remembered the word this week.”

All this led to a conversation about remembering things, our short-term and long-term memories.  We go around the table talking about how we remember some things and not others. Chana remembers as a little girl - eighty years ago - going down to Eilat and diving into the sea from the bridge – what colorful fish there were there. And how we threw them some bread.

With age, long-term memory strengthens.

We do a round of remembering names and faces. This is increasingly difficult but really important. The madricha takes out a foam ball, they’re all laughing as they throw the ball (roll it) to each other. Then you have to say the name of the person you’re rolling to. And so on.

By the age of 75, half of the elderly suffer from some form of cognitive impairment. 
These kind of groups are really critical.

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