human behavior

Exercise your brain

Posted in Health & Medicine by humanb on January 22, 2010

I’m away from Sydney at the moment, spending a month in Ann Arbor doing a rotation in geriatrics. Today I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon at a Day Care Center for seniors suffering from mild to moderate dementia. Among the day’s activities were painting class, coffee hour, role play and brain games.

Painting Class was great fun. The attendees all had moderate dementia and required considerable instruction and encouragement to complete a Mark Rothko-like painting. Every step – from picking up the brush, to using a glass of water and a towel – required repeated explanation. But the attendees were focused, active and diverted.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, No. 10, 1950

The gentleman with the most severe dementia expressed mental exhaustion at one point and stopped painting. A painter myself, I reassured him that “The trick to art is knowing when to put down your brush.” His painting was actually the truest to Rothko’s style for its simplicity. He was also the slowest painter, and would painstakingly fill in every spot of white canvas with color – always being mindful of the direction of his brushstrokes and the straightness of his lines. The teacher later explained to me that he was once an engineer.

Coffee Hour is reserved for people with early memory loss. Many in this group are highly educated; a few have PhD’s. Conversation flows freely over coffee and lunch. I had an interesting conversation with two gentlemen and a lady about the current economic crisis and the fate of the Great Lakes ecosystem since the introduction of the flying carp.

Role Play was surprisingly funny. Participant enthusiasm was lukewarm at first, and tempered by some confusion as to what in the world was happening. The game today was telephone role play. The first two players had to act out ordering a pizza for delivery. The second two acted out a woman calling off sick from work because she secretly wanted to go to the casino. The third pair were discussing one woman’s recent date. The challenge for the players was to maintain attention as to the point of the exercise and to generate relevant conversation. I’m not sure to what extent the players were deliberately being facetious, and one player may have lost the plot at one point, but everyone had a good laugh without hurt feelings.

Brain Games is a wonderful session open to people with various types of memory problems as well as to interested people from the community. It involves completing puzzles and brain teasers at the session, and for homework. The point of it all is to challenge the players to use different parts of their brains with each game, to find new patterns and connections, and to engage in rational, creative, and lateral thinking.

The warm-up exercise involved the entire group creating a narrative sentence, with each participant contributing one word. If I recall, our sentence was…

Today – he – climbed – the – stairs – alone – to – get – a – book – which – would – help – me – to –  find – and – learn – about – American – thought – on – how – to – do – magic.

Or something like that.

We then reviewed homework tasks. These were simple math equations and more creative challenges like the assignment to draw an “amphibian car”. One man had drawn a car with wings in water. Another man had drawn a car with its front tilted into a lake.

The following mind-bending challenges are called Stickelers, created by a woman named Terry Stickels. These were the most fun. Here are four, listed from easiest to most difficult.



What common four-letter word can be placed in front of each of the words below to form four new words?





Below are five names followed by a curious, but logical code. See if you can crack the code and assign the appropriate number to GUS.

KIM = 11913

ART = 11820

DEB = 452

POP = 161516

GUS = ?

Each of the following abbreviations, in everyday usage, can stand for two completely different things. What?

Example: C.D. stands for “certificate of deposit” and “compact disc”.











Reverse the first two letters of the answer to the first clue to get the answer to the second.

Example: ’60’s hairstyle / casino card game  = afro / faro

Monster / Vice President Al

Hearty brew / Rags-to-riches writer

Most unusual / Take into custody

Choice / Magical drink

County in Northern Ireland / Shine

Blue jeans / 1950’s-60’s singing sensation

Shade tree / Enough

Height / Degrees from the equator

Kind of energy / Hard to understand

Storefront cover / On the way out

Beneath / Less clothed

The act of making a god / Moral improvement or guidance

*     *     *

Several of the players did extremely well, or, at least better than me. As often as not, my mind went blank – evidence that we could all benefit from exercising our brains.


4 Responses

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  1. Nadezhda Konovalova said, on January 22, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    It was interesting to read about activities! And Stickelers are really challenging!

    • humanb said, on January 23, 2010 at 8:06 am

      Yes, Stickelers can be challenging. I swear I could sense different areas of my brain being challenged to figure out different puzzles! I hope you enjoyed them. 🙂

  2. gagaoriginals said, on January 23, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Wow, it was great to read how challenged Adult Day Care patients are. I admit I have never been to one but I have visited patients in nursing homes that seem to not be priviledged to any memory activity. Are these exercises you would suggest to those living with elderly parents?

    Also, I crochet which many our of seniors use to do. In your opnion, would dementia patients have the ability to concentrate on crocheting a project?

    • humanb said, on January 23, 2010 at 8:04 am

      I would recommend these activities to anyone. We could all stand to exercise our brains. I will be spending next week at a nursing home and I may blog about my experience – including if there are activities available that challenge the mind. One of the nicest aspects of this Day Care Program, though, is the opportunity for social interaction. The Brain Games were all the more fun because there was a large group of participants with different skills and levels of memory loss.

      I think the best thing you can do for elderly parents is to keep them socializing with people from all ages. Humans are social animals and we most of us thrive with company.

      As for crochet, I think any hobby, but especially creative ones, are great for the young and old. You may find that seniors with mild dementia are able to retain their memory of previously learned movements, like piano playing or the basic stitches of crochet. Learned movements are remembered in a specific part of the brain. However when dementia worsens, this will also become difficult.

      Thanks for reading. 🙂

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