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As people age, social activities become important for mental and even physical health. Dr. Christian Fur man professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Louisville and medical director at the Trager Center, says “interaction between people keeps your brain active and prevents dementia, depression, and it usually comes in the form of some kind of movement. All of these things promote physical and mental sharpness and health.”
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Jacquelyn Graven, licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist and owner/founder of Graven and Associates says social activity also gives individuals meaning and value to their lives. “Socialization builds relationships and builds connections, which stimulates the brain and gets your body up and moving.”
Dr. Graven says, “There are signs if you are sitting for too long and not moving as you should. Often depression and anxiety can set in, which lowers one’s self-confidence. You see this as a ripple effect where everything just kind of atrophies.”
“You need to talk in order for your brain to work. If you don’t, depression and memory loss set in,” Dr. Furman says. “Geriatric patients are very similar to pediatric patients. Think about when a child hasn’t learned to speak yet. Oftentimes they go to school and start interacting with other students and they develop that ability to speak easily. It is the same with older folks — if they don’t use certain abilities, they will lose them.”
Dr. Furman suggests a screening test for depression, as that will be a good indicator if the individual is lonely or isolated. There are warning signs you can look for such as a change in personality if the person used to be very engaged, but now they are more withdrawn; if the person is confused; if the person is suicidal or talks frequently about dying; and if the person is not keeping up her appearance.
“Individuals need to be doing some type of social engagement every single day,” Dr. Furman advises. “Now with technology, it can be online, through Facetime, texting, they even have robots that can provide company for individuals. You don’t want to always rely on technology, but it can fill in the gap as needed. Without a doubt, a human’s touch is needed once a week.”
There are a variety of ways an individual can socialize: a friends network, adult continuing education, book clubs, volunteering, going to a worship center, having a home health agency check-in, and taking part in specific programming at various centers around the city. Dr. Furman says she tells her patients to just blame her. “I tell them to say, ‘It’s doctor’s orders, and Dr. Furman says I have to go to lunch at least once a week.’ But you really just need to get something on the calendar and make it happen. Don’t let it slip by and just sit around watching TV instead.”
Dr. Graven suggests looking at what the individual has enjoyed doing. “Determine what sparks joy in that person’s life and look for opportunities that allow them to participate.”
Here are some other activities that keep the mind sharp: game-based apps such as Scrabble or poker; reading the newspaper or a book; working a puzzle; writing one’s own story by recalling memories; or,using an app that gives a word of the day and ways to use it to encourage the brain to learn something new.
Both doctors agree that the most important thing we can do as caregivers and family members is to listen. Dr. Furman suggests starting a conversation with “tell me a story when…” and let them talk. “For those with memory problems who may not be able to remember yesterday, they often can recall childhood moments and be able to share those with you. Remind them what season of the year it is by saying things like ‘Thanksgiving is coming up, what was Thanksgiving like for you growing up?’ When you visit, you can play games or work math problems in a workbook, but the best and easiest thing we can do is just listen.”
What can you talk about with older relatives instead of health-related issues? Experts suggest the following:
- Ask them to tell you a story.
- Tell them about a current event and ask what their experience was like with something similar.
- Allow them to share memories.
- Look for conversation starters throughout the day.
- Avoid discussions of politics and religion.
Here are some opportunities for socialization in our community:
- YMCA supports Forever Young and Active Older Adults, social groups that provide a great opportunity to socialize and meet new friends. They assist seniors in our community in staying healthy and active physically, mentally, and socially.
- Jewish Community Center offers the J Healthy Senior Adults Program, which provides year-round nutrition, fitness, recreation, education, and cultural activities that ensure the health, social connection, and independent living of senior adults.
- The Thrive Center offers a variety of educational and exercise opportunities: Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops for Seniors, SingFit (Therapeutic Music for Dementia), Chair Yoga, and Meditation.
- The Trager Institute will connect patients with community resources, provide wellness support that addresses all aspects of your health, and work with your doctors to coordinate your health care.
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