You Can Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease

by Janet Simpson Benvenuti

Getting Alzheimer’s disease is not inevitable with age. In a recent TED talk, Dr. Lisa Genova, neuroscientist, Massachusetts native and author of several books including Still Alice shared five ways you can avoid cognitive impairment.

You likely know the first four.

1. Get a good night’s sleep;
2. Follow the Mediterranean diet;
3. Exercise several times a week; aerobic exercise is best with strength training to enable fitness; and,
4. Lower your stress levels through prayer, yoga, or meditation.

What often surprises people is the fifth preventative: Learn something new. Exercising your brain through new experiences builds synaptic capacity. Lisa referred to the now famous Nun Study, research that followed the lives of 678 nuns who generously agreed to allow their brains to be autopsied upon their passing at ages 75 to 107. To their surprise, the researchers found that several nuns’ brains had the telltale Alzheimer’s lesions yet these women displayed no evidence of cognitive impairment while alive. Why? Their brains had ample capacity because of a lifetime of learning.

Watch the video. Share this post with your friends and family. Then join me in learning a new language using an app like Duolingo. Au revoir und auf wiedersehen.

c Circle of Life Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

The Joys of Dementia

by Jan Simpson Benvenuti

“Wouldn’t it be better if your mother died?” a friend asked over tea when I mentioned that my mother had Alzheimer’s disease. Too stunned to reply directly to her remark, I said simply, “Oh no, it’s not that bad,” and I quickly shifted our conversation to her children.

Die? I should have been outraged by her question, yet I learned long ago that many people consider memory loss to be worse than death itself. Would she have asked that question if I told her my mother had breast cancer?

Say the word “dementia” and the world shudders. Tweeters tweet, media moguls opine, and writers of blogs and books rail about the tragedy of memory loss. Yet most people have never actually lived with someone whose memory is fading, and many find the thought unnerving. My mother lived with memory loss for 17 years and I want to emphasize the word lived. For most of those years, she prepared meals, did the laundry, attended family gatherings, and loved her grandchildren. When my father passed away, one sister and I took her into our homes, concerned that she should not live alone.  During that time, I came to appreciate the benefits of not remembering, of forgetting the day-to-day indignities of aging, of living in the moment.

At the risk of offending your sensibilities, below is a list of five joys of having dementia.

1) You get to live in the moment again, just as you did as a child. Rain and snow, falling leaves and lightning, the best of mother nature becomes a source of wonder and delight. Do you recall when you measured time by the weather and the season and not the clock? Dementia returns you to that season of life.

2) Young children adore you because you’ll watch them play and perform with joy. My daughter and her friends were five when her Nana came to live with us. I still recall one Sunday afternoon when the girls, bejeweled and dressed with boas, tiaras, dresses and bangles, performed The Hungry Caterpillar over and over and over again. Each time my mother enjoyed the performance with fresh eyes.

3) You’ll forget the rules of life and break them. Eat dessert before dinner, why not?

4) You may forget the loss of your loved ones. After 59 years of marriage, my mother should have grieved for a year or more after my father’s passing. But, she forgot he died. She didn’t forget him, of course, she just forgot that he had passed away. “Does Bob know that I’m here?” she would ask. “Yes,” I’d lie, and we’d resume our activities for the day.

5) You’ll remind your adult children just by your physical presence to take care of their health, appreciate their loved ones, enjoy every moment of life, and not sweat the small stuff.

Dementia may rob your older relatives of memories, but it provides the family an opportunity to celebrate your time with them and convey important family values to your children. One Sunday I planned a special family dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday. “Why are we celebrating her birthday?” my 12 year-old son complained. “It’s stupid, she won’t remember it.”  “Really?” I replied, “tell me what you remember about your first birthday party.”  He stopped complaining.

My son was right, my mother would not remember her party. But he would, and I would, too. It was our last celebration with her.

How do you enjoy time with your relatives who are growing forgetful? Here are 101 activities you may want to try.

I know, first-hand, the chaos that this disease causes for the elder and their extended family. Yet I refute the belief that those living with dementia have little to teach us in their last years. My mother, like many others, retained cognition through the end of her life using strategies I describe in Don’t Give Up on Me! Consider purchasing a copy through Circle of Life Partners; all proceeds are donated to support elders and their families.

©2015 Circle of Life Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

 

Alive Inside – Music and Memory


by Janet Simpson Benvenuti

This year at the Sundance Film Festival, the 2014 Audience Award was given to a documentary about Music and Memory called “Alive Inside.” The film is a story about the power of music to reach into the minds of elderly men and women, enriching their lives and reconnecting them to their personal music history. Not long ago, a clip from the film about 90-year old Henry became a YouTube sensation. The full documentary began showing in Landmark Sunshine theaters around the country starting July 25th in NY, Toronto and Washington; August 1st in Boston, LA and Philadelphia; and August 22nd in Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle. To find where the film is playing near you, click here.

If you don’t get to the theater, you can help support the lives of seniors across the country by donating money or your unused ipods to the non-profit Music & Memory led by Dan Cohen. Dan’s organization also provides training and materials to healthcare professionals who want to offer the gift of music to those under their care. You may learn more here.

The next time you visit a relative living with dementia, try to engage them with music. As you may know, my mother lived with Alzheimer’s disease for 17 years and in her later years, we played the music she loved routinely during our visits. Perhaps that’s why she retained cognition through the end of her life. Here is one of her favorites from the Andrews Sisters. What music would reach your loved ones?

ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s

by Jan Simpson

Recently I attended a forum in Boston where I met Dr. John Zeisel and Sean Caulfield, co-founders of ARTZ, an organization that hosts community events for people living with memory loss and their caregivers. Drawing on the support of artists and cultural institutions such as the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Australia, the Big Apple Circus and the Tribeca Film Institute, ARTZ has enable thousands of people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias to have access to arts and culture.

Standing before an art exhibit, John spoke passionately about how art experiences can significantly enhance the lives of those living with dementia. The evidence surrounded him as the room was filled with paintings and photography created by people living with Alzheimer’s disease. I could feel the joy they all must have felt as they created their paintings, many perhaps beyond the point where they could express themselves with words. While some paintings were detailed and colorful, my eyes were drawn to one that appeared rather simplistic, a Star of David and a rectangle with colored bars. “That person,” John said, “could no longer speak but he was telling us, ‘I’m still here.'”  When his family saw the painting, they began to cry. Their father was a Holocaust survivor and his drawing captured his memory of that experience. “Alzheimer’s doesn’t take away memory, your memories are all in there. It’s as if you put the memories in the glove compartment and you lost the key; the art unlocks it,” said John.

ARTZ does more than encourage artistic expression.  By creating interactive, educational programs in partnership with museums and theaters, it allows elders to enjoy an outing that is stimulating and therapeutic. Art experiences have been shown to significantly reduce psycho-behavioral symptoms often associated with dementia, such as anxiety, aggression and agitation, and to optimize remaining capacities.

On December 15th, I’ll be volunteering in Boston at “Meet Me at the Coolidge…and Make Memories” an interactive film program for people with memory loss and their partners. The film event was designed specifically to encourage audience discussion and reminiscence. The program will show short clips from classic films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Tickets are free. If you have a loved one living with dementia, consider bringing them to the program.  Click here to learn more about ARTZ and all of the programs it sponsors.  If someone you love is experiencing memory loss, consider adding art to his or her activities.

Do you have stories to share about the arts and your older loved ones?

©Circle of Life Partners™

Nutrition for Healthy Aging: Beef Barley Soup

by Jan Simpson

When my parents reached their late seventies, I began to stock their freezer with home-made soups and casseroles. I used the excuse that it was easier to prepare a triple batch of soup or two casseroles and share with them than to make food for my family alone. One of their favorite soups was beef barley. Laden with vegetables, this nutritious soup provides a warm meal for lunch or dinner during the cool fall days or frigid wintry ones. Preparing a large batch and allocating the soup into containers that could be placed in my parents’ freezer provided them with a quick meal on those days when they felt too tired or too ill to prepare a meal for themselves.

Over the years, I’ve added specific spices and herbs known to support health to my recipes. For example, garlic, onions, and leeks rank high among the most effective foods that inhibit brain, lung, prostate, and breast cancers. Turmeric, mint, thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil, rosemary, parsley, as well as the vegetables celery, squash, and carrots, also have anti-cancer effects as described in an earlier blog post “Fighting Cancer.” I do not add salt nor do I use purchased beef collagen stock with its high salt content because a diet high in salt contributes to chronic high blood pressure, one of the causes of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and dementia.

This following recipe for beef barley soup is from the kitchen of a dear friend, Mimma Fitzgerald.

Ingredients:

  • 2-3, 1-1½ pound packages of lean stew beef, cut into cubes (½ inch)
  • 1 29-ounce can of tomato puree
  • 1 12-ounce can of tomato paste
  • 1 large onion (or garlic)
  • 7 ribs of celery and 10 medium carrots peeled chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • other vegetables e.g., green beans, spinach, butternut squash, yams as desired
  • 8 oz. (1/2 bag ) of pearl barley, rinsed in a colander to remove excess starch
  • ½ teaspoon of any of the following herbs and spices: parsley, mint, thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram, or turmeric.

Directions:

  1. Using a large sauce pan, brown prepared stew meat in 1 teaspoon hot canola oil and set aside.
  2. Chop the vegetables and onion as above and set aside.
  3. Fill a large stock pot with 26 cups of fresh water (or beef stock), add tomato puree, tomato paste, vegetables, onion, herbs, spices, and barley. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cover and cook on medium-heat for 30 minutes.
  4. Add browned beef to the soup and let the soup simmer on medium-low heat for at least 90 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool for 20 minutes before filling pint- or quart-sized containers. Yield is 8 quarts of soup.

Stocking my parents’ freezer with containers of frozen beef barley soup that they could simply warm on their stove top and enjoy with salt-free crackers helped ensure that they would maintain a healthy diet even on days when they didn’t feel like cooking.

Do you have favorite recipes that provide healthy, easy-to-prepare meals for an older loved one? Share one with us to receive a free copy of Don’t Give Up on Me!

©Circle of Life Partners™

Cognitive Changes in Healthy Aging Adults

by Joan DiGiovanni and Jan Simpson

 

Joan:After spending time with an elderly adult, have you ever wondered if that perhaps he or she is showing signs of dementia? How do you know if it is a form of dementia or just a sign of the normal aging process?

I recently attended a lecture at Boston College given by Prof. Elizabeth Kensinger from their Psychology Department. The lecture focused on memory changes in healthy aging adults and the neurological changes in the brain that occur. The 3 most common cognitive changes in healthy seniors include:

1. The speed of mental processing: as we age, the speed that we absorb and process information declines. (It’s important to realize, however, that given extra time, seniors can process information about as well as younger people.)

2. Slower response in storing and recalling new information. This is often observed when an older individual, even those in middle age, try to learn to play the piano or learn to speak a new language.

3. Decline in reaction time especially when it comes to complex choices. Implications with certain tasks such as driving a car or cooking on a hot stove can become significant.

The changes listed here are normal to the healthy aging process; they are gradual and typically do not interfere with daily tasks. Dementia, on the other hand, is not a normal part of aging. A proper diagnosis is critical as there are many ailments that look like dementia but are not; start with a thorough physical exam. Often, forgetfulness is simply a result of new medication — in fact, the most common form of reversible dementia is a side effect from meds. With the help of a general practitioner, proper diagnosis can be made.

Jan: Yes, but if one is concerned, your parent or older loved one should be tested for potential memory impairment.  My 79-year-old father was prescribed a medication that affected his cognition: he began to hallucinate. Alarmed that this might be the start of his cognitive decline, my sister, a learning specialist, made arrangements for him to be evaluated by a neuropsychologist.  Physicians typically focus first on finding an organic cause of  memory loss, such as a stroke; a neuropsychologist, on the other hand, tests for memory, concentration, reasoning, and language function. Read more here. By the time my dad was evaluated, his medication had been changed and he behaved normally. We went ahead with the evaluation anyway and was comforted by the report: all was well.

How do you find a  neuropsychologist?  Ask a physician for a referral to a neuropsychologist, a memory clinic,  or a geriatric psychiatrist who can arrange for an assessment. (Note: a neuropsychologist is different than a neurologist; the former is a phD, the latter an M.D.) A list of memory clinics in the United States may be found here. Or, call the help line at the Alzheimer’s Association. Do not hesitate to have your loved one assessed. At the age of 65, the prevalence of dementia is just 5-7 percent and only rises to approximately 40 percent by the age of 90. My father’s test results gave us the peace of mind we needed to keep him and my mother at home.

 

Have you had any experience with memory loss in your loved ones?  Let us know in the comments section.

©Circle of Life Partners™