Geriatric Center gaming group helps members fight memory loss through laughter, trivia and Wii
It’s a workout regimen without treadmills, dumbbells and mats.
Instead, the participants who meet at the Turner Senior Resource Center every week use a stack of games like Apples to Apples, Balderdash and even Nintendo’s Wii Sports to exercise their core target area: the brain.
The four-year-old gaming group, Mind Works, is one of the U-M Geriatrics Center’s popular Silver Club programs and a place where members can connect socially, share laughter and have fun while fighting a serious struggle many face: memory loss.
“What we’re doing is mental gymnastics,” says regular attendee John Siefert, 68, a retired chemist for the Michigan State Police who drives from Grand Blanc each week. “When I hurt my shoulder, I went to physical therapy for help. This is helping our minds.
“And when we play games, we laugh a lot. We’re like a bunch of kids in here.”
Members, whose ages range from mid-fifties to eighties and whose diagnoses include everything from mild memory loss and cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease, gather weekly to try a new game that flexes many areas of cognitive and memory function, including short-term memory, long-term memory and motor memory.
“It takes a lot of muscle to learn something new,” says Silver Club Early Memory Loss Program Facilitator Laura Rice-Oeschger, LMSW, a memory loss specialist. Rice-Oeschger co-facilitates Mind Works with Stephen Campbell, LLMSW, program coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association. “The spontaneity of gathering for the purpose of gaming in a noncompetitive, socially supported environment has meaning.
“They are using language skills, reasoning and critical thinking, as well as feeling good from the social connection without any social risks. If you’re at a dinner party and having trouble finding a word, it can make you feel insecure and reluctant to speak up. Here, everyone is helping each other and everyone in the room understands.”
No one is ever put on the spot at Mind Works and the only rule is that there are no rules. The first thing members do when they crack open a new game? Ditch the timers, score sheets and penalty books to make games competition free. They play their own versions of games like Trivial Pursuit, Connect 4 and Guesstimation.
Other games get an added twist. Answers for “Name that Tune,” which involves blasting songs out of an iPod, go further than just the hit’s title. Tunes from different eras prompt participants to share memories about historical events and other stories from their past.
Some endeavors are more adventurous than others, such as the time members tested out Wii – a favorite of many of their grandchildren. They learned to create “avatars” and virtually bowl.
Research lags behind the gaming industry and its benefits to memory and cognitive enhancement, Rice-Oeschger says. But studies indicate that brain games – any mind-stimulating activity from Sudoku to higher-tech computer games– may boost memory prowess by rehearsal and increasing blood and oxygen flow to the area of the brain that is being trained.
“Twenty years ago it was accepted that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease couldn’t learn something new and now we know that is absolutely not true,” Rice-Oeschger says. “It certainly takes motivation, interest and patience, but I continue to be awed by our participants.”
“More researchers are looking at non-pharmaceutical interventions that support well-being for normal aging and individuals with memory loss. We know that stimulating your brain while being engaged in life and feeling socially included has tremendous life enhancing benefit when living with memory loss.”