Instructor Don Veenstra provides one-on-one computer instruction to Brentmoor resident Rose Werber.

When it comes to afflictions associated with aging, perhaps none is more dreaded than Alzheimer’s/demen tia. The condition, much in the news lately, has even spurred many middle-agers to ‘exercise their brains,’ doing math longhand, concentrating on crossword puzzles and sharpening their Sudoku skills. While it’s never too early to start such exercises, it’s also never too late, either.

At senior communities, there is a widespread focus on programs that exercise the brain. Brentmoor Retirement Community resident service coordinator Kate Massot says ‘brain games’ are part of the facility’s regular curriculum. “We spend about an hour per session with a group of residents and work on word puzzles and brain teasers,” she says.

The computer is another useful tool at The Brentmoor. “We have a computer instructor, Don Veenstra of The Brain Fitness Gym, who comes weekly to teach our seniors how to use the computer, and also how to play games on the computer to stimulate their thinking,” she notes. “Don has created computer programming that lets seniors play memory games and allows them to go to the next level as they progress.” Massot says one of the reasons computer classes have gone over well is because the programs are so user-friendly. “Playing the games is a good way to start, it’s less threatening when it’s a game,” she says. Sometimes, the games are projected onto a wall to be used as a small group activity. “Because the programs are open to all residents, we get a diverse bunch,” Massot says. “There are those who acknowledge they need a little help with memory, and there are participants who are still pretty sharp. Then there are folks who tell us, I want a Facebook account!”

At Hallmark of Creve Coeur and its sister facilities across the country, a new initiative called ‘Cross-Train Your Brain’ aims to help seniors maintain cognitive fitness. “We’ve partnered with medical centers to come up with mentally stimulating activities that focus on brain health,” says Michelle Moore, who supervises the in-house wellness program and coordinates The Hallmark’s therapy clinic. “In addition to focusing on brain health, we’re finding ways to support what the brain needs: nutrition, stress management, social contact and spiritual support.”

Physical activity is another way to keep seniors engaged. “We have ballroom dancing, yoga, tai chi, and even Wii,” Moore notes. “All these activities utilize movement and balance, and they involve the different areas of the brain.”

Even plain conversation and storytelling go a long way in keeping seniors mentally active. Lauren Vickers is activities director at Family Partners Adult Day Services, a facility that provides daily supervision for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who live independently or belong to an assisted living community. She says reminiscing is a good way to stimulate the brain. “We have a game that matches states and state capitals,” she says. “When somebody mentions Montana, for instance, it may trigger a resident’s memory about a trip they took there. Sometimes, it’s someone who doesn’t talk a lot, but they can become very animated when telling this kind of personal story.”

Other brain-exercising activities include field trips and travel-related programs. “We go to Model T car shows, play music from the ‘40s or talk about products that came out during that time,” Vickers says. “Because many of our seniors have a business background, a lot of our activities are presentation-style, with maps and other visuals. If we’re talking about Italy, for example, we also do an olive oil tasting. The more senses you can use, the more people get involved and respond positively.” And the more seniors are involved, the more their brains are engaged.