Geriatric specialists keep worrying about how elderly people, living in a way that demands little of them physically or cognitively, can slide into physical and mental decline. There are constant reminders elderly people get to try to use their brains a little bit doing crossword puzzles and the like. Of course crossword puzzles are only going to engage the brain as long as the person doing them is interested, and for as long as he doesn’t get used to them. Once the challenge wears out, this kind of artificial stimulation is going to be very little use. But what if institutions that provide care for elderly people thought up instead of better ways to keep their residents grounded and in touch with life?
There has been a plan of just this sort proposed, where elderly people who live in homes, could volunteer in schools to help a public education system that’s critically shorthanded. And while they go about it, they could help reverse their own mental decline. The Journal of Gerontology just published a study in which they used brain scans to see how it improved the brains of eight elderly women from homes that provided care for elderly people, if they volunteered at local public schools in Baltimore. The women were all between 65 and 70 in age, and they were just the right age where you could begin to worry about their mental impairment. These weren’t well-educated women, and they have never made much money. They even did poorly at a psychiatric test that measured their mental state. They signed up with the Experience Corps that trained them and set them up with schools to accept work as librarians, office workers, and as teaching assistants.
After six months of this kind of work, when they were tested again, they did remarkably better in how their brains performed, and the very changes could be seen on an MRI. Just the fact that they were in a social setting where they were asked to answer to people’s needs, and where they were asked to work hard, brought about visible improvements. The main reason that elderly people begin to lose their grip on getting their lives together after a time is that they lose the ability to concentrate on the things they need to do, and to make decisions. This is the kind of impairment that makes them need to move in with their children or move in into a home that provides care for elderly people. The skills they learn volunteering though, forces their brains to keep up, to find a way to organize better.
Working in a school is so much better than simply doing crosswords, or playing and reading with your grandchildren. When you work in a social setting, you need to keep track of so many things – doing the work you’re asked, getting people to do as to ask them, to keep track of what everyone says and how they behave, and trying to maintain personal relationships with everyone around you. It just goes to show how we have it all wrong, having people retire and mostly vegetate. Our brains were built to think and to work. When our brains are denied the simple work they need to do to stay healthy, would it be any surprise to see them decline?