We all know that physical exercise is important to our bodies’ wellbeing, but did you know that cognitive stimulation is equally important to the health of our brains? Experts say that the brain can be strengthened through targeted exercise, just the same as any other part of the body. This is especially important for senior citizens—even for those who may already be showing signs of cognitive decline.
Helping your own aging parents to exercise their brains is easier than you may think, too. Depending on their level of overall wellness, your mom or dad may be able to add some or all of the following “brain-building” exercises into their routines. If Mom or Dad has a caregiver, speak to that person about the possibility of working the following ideas into the day:
• Social interaction
Social engagement is about more than companionship. The give and take of conversation, practice with word recall, and ongoing facial and environmental recognition help give the brain a workout.
• Creative work
Does Mom or Dad play an instrument, paint, draw, knit, or sew (etc.)? Studies show that time spent creatively is time that reinvests itself exponentially in terms of health: the brain is open to problem solving and new ideas for hours after such pursuits. Maybe Dad no longer has his full woodworking workshop since downsizing homes, but is there a class at the local arts center he, or both parents, may enjoy attending each week? Maybe your mom would enjoy jewelry making or working with beads, and either parent can benefit from coloring with your kids. It’s easy enough to make sure that supplies are on hand. Show your parent(s) how to search for instructional videos on YouTube, and help them ignite a new or long-buried passion.
We can all benefit from exercise, but pumping oxygen through our veins is good for our brains, too. Safety first, of course, but perhaps some low-impact stretches or a few yoga poses could be added to your parents’ days? There is usually some form of movement we can all add into our lives, no matter our physical limitations. Talk to your parent’s doctor(s) first for clearance, then help Mom or Dad find a YouTube channel, website, exercise membership site, or even borrow a few DVDs from the library.
Do(es) one (or both) of your folks like to cook? So long as they are not displaying dangerous signs of memory loss or dementia (which could cause injury to self and/or environment), let them! Send your folks to a cooking class they can experience together; encourage them to use their favorite cookbook(s) and/or to buy new ones, as following a recipe uses problem solving, memory, logic, and other skills.
• Gardening and getting outside
I’ve listed these together because the real benefit here is Vitamin D, which comes from the sun. Just like plants, we all need actual sunlight to thrive—and the elderly population tends to show the most Vitamin D deficiency. If Mom and/or Dad are no longer able to get digging in the dirt, see what plants will grow in containers right outside their door, then help set up an outdoor area where they can sit and enjoy the beauty of the garden each day (and possibly help improve cognition).
While your parents are outside drinking their morning coffee and soaking in the sun, they can further exercise their brains by doing some reading: magazines, daily newspapers (although the news can be upsetting…), novels, etc., these are all excellent for keeping the mind engaged. Help them download Overdrive and/or favorite their local library online, and your parents will have an endless supply of free reading at their fingertips.
• Puzzles and Games
Old-fashioned puzzles, board games, card games, crossword puzzles, sudoku, online games, even popular game apps found on your PC/phone/tablet, are not only brain stimulators, but brain boosters, too. Teach Mom and Dad to better utilize their devices and you’ll help them build even greater critical thinking skills.
• Change in routine
It’s fine to enjoy a routine … many of us do. However, when we do something the same way day after day, the task becomes so practiced that it’s done without thought. We could all benefit from a daily shakeup of sorts, such as: finding a new route to work or to a friend’s house, grocery shopping at a different store or location, applying makeup or getting dressed in a different than usual order, and so on. These small daily challenges call on our brains to reason differently, to use new processes.
All it takes is a little critical thinking on our parts to ensure that our aging moms and dads are getting the cerebral challenges they need to stay as fit as possible. If you need help thinking through this or any other aging-related topic, please reach out to me.
All the best,
Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.