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I Bet You Didn’t Know This About Increasing Your Residents' Cognitive Ability - Part 1

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By Steve Moran

While at the Masterpiece Living Lyceum this spring I had the chance to interview Rob Winningham, a professor of Psychology and Gerontology at Western Oregon University with a background in neuroscience. He has been studying memory for more than two decades. About 20 years ago he got interested in studying older adults and their memory with the goal of helping them improve or maintain their memory skills.  

The conversation was fascinating and some of the things we talked about have the potential to profoundly impact senior living occupancy and labor costs.   

One of the most profound parts of the interview comes at the very end.   

“It's been estimated that if we could delay Alzheimer's by four years in this country we would cut the incidence in half.”

This might not be so good if you are a memory care provider but it could be hugely beneficial if you could do things that would keep your residents from moving from independent living to assisted living because of cognitive decline and keep them from moving from assisted living to memory care because of an even steeper decline cognitive ability.

This is a 2-part interview and, at the end of the last part, I will post a link to the entire video interview.

Preserving and Improving Memory

According to Rob there is no magic bullet with it comes to improving or preserving memory skills. About half of of what happens with memory is related to genetics. The other 50% of the memory puzzle is within our control. There are 6 factors that can preserve or improve memory:

  1. Cognitive Exercises

  2. Physical Activity

  3. Social Engagement

  4. Reducing Stress

  5. Good Sleep

  6. Solving for Depression and Anxiety

We Do Three Things With Memory -- Crossword Puzzles and Trivia

Rob talks about the three things we do with memories:

  1. We make new memories

  2. We store memories over long periods of time

  3. We recall memories

It turns out that when people have problems with memory it is not recalling old memories but rather it is making and retrieving new memories. The goal is to help seniors enhance executive function . . . the ability to make new memories and recall those memories. Recalling facts from a long time ago does not seem to help doing this.  

Executive Function

I asked Rob to talk about the kinds of things that actually stimulate the brain or enhance executive function. It is all about paying attention and concentration. Any activity that forces the brain to do these things will improve brain health. Here are a few examples

  1. Any kind of social engagement

  2. Volunteering

  3. Helping others

  4. Sudoku

  5. Word Searches

  6. Cryptograms

The Senior Living Opportunity -- Non Memory Care

We spent some talking about what he would do to create a senior living program that would allow senior residents to improve their executive function. At a high level the focus would be on creating a culture of lifelong learning and cognitive stimulation.

He sees the dining room as a prime opportunity to keep seniors occupied during that time between when they arrive at their table and the food shows up. He would put golf pencils and mini Sudokus (fewer squares than the traditional 9 X 9). He would mix those up with word searches and even some trivia, not because the trivia itself is so helpful but because it is a way to increase social interaction.

He also suggests tapping into local universities to do lectures.

Finally we talked about television. To the best of his knowledge, TV and seniors has not really been studied with respect to memory. He did note however that the research on children shows that for every extra hour of television a child watches each day at age four they're 10% more likely to develop Attention Deficit Disorder.

The big problem he sees with television is that it is very passive. He also noted that when television is used for learning or social interaction it would likely be a positive.

In Part Two, An Easy Way to Save $12,000 Per Year Per Memory Care Resident, we will explore some additional research and what opportunities there are with memory impaired residents.

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