Have you ever noticed the vast difference between the cognitive abilities of people in their eighties and nineties? Some of these differences are due to genetics, and some are due to injuries or lack of injuries. But some, you can be sure, are due to the amount of mental engagement those individuals have in their world on a daily basis. How do we intentionally help those we are caring for, and even ourselves, engage more with the world around them?
- Appeal to the senses. If you are working with a patient or loved one who is not mentally engaged at all, be sure to try and involve several senses. Smells can trigger different areas of the brain than verbal or auditory communication. Try using essential oils, or even brewing coffee or making cookies when you're with them. Some people respond very well and become more mentally alert when good smells are close. If you know someone has freshly mown grass, try going for a walk to smell the grass. This may be particularly helpful if the person grew up in the country and may associate the smell as mown hay. Use tactile sensory activities with them, as well. Think soft, rough, corrugated, corduroy, silky, scratchy, woven, etc. Some people are heavily in tune with their sense of touch and will respond better if their tactile needs are met. Visual and auditory stimulation is usually quite easy to maneuver in every situation, but also think about taste. Some people respond well to sour, sweet & bitter tastes and it will encourage involvement and engagement with the world around them. These suggestions can be helpful for in cases where mental aging or engagement has become nearly atrophied, but they can also be useful in less severe cases and in every day life for the rest of us, especially if your life is becoming too mundane and similar. Try to focus on different sensory activities and enjoy the mental engagement to your surroundings that results. Even young students who are taking tests notice a difference if they smell peppermint before taking an exam!
- Another important factor in keeping your brain young is getting enough sleep! I know that this is particularly difficult, especially when we age. Sometimes our bodies become sore and we cannot sleep any longer. Sometimes our rhythm of sleep is broken and it is difficult to get back into a healthy pattern, but do your best. Your mental health and clarity depends a great deal on being able to sleep. Sleep is when our bodies heal. It is also astounding how many problems in the real world are worked out during sleep.
- Work on puzzles. You do not need to become a jigsaw master, but working on crosswords, logic problems, Sudoku and other puzzles can help keep your mind young and active. In addition it will give you a good topic of conversation with others if you become stumped. It's always more interesting to try to solve a crossword clue than to talk about the weather for the 4th time in a day. It also tends to lead to other topics of conversation...and that is good on a number of levels.
- Social engagement. Conversation with others is good for our mental pliability. You never know what will come up in conversation. The act of conversing with others has certain rules, but the topics are never quite the same. It also tends to present other puzzles that might keep your brain young as you try to solve them. If you have a friend who is have a particular problem with their plumbing or a gardening question, it might be an opportunity for you to help them troubleshoot or solve the problem or puzzle.
- Eating right and staying fit will also help you to keep your brain young. Neurotransmitters are produced in the gut. Exercise stimulates certain growth in neurons. You need whole body health in order to have a brain that is healthy. It will never be enough to sit all day and do crosswords. Your brain is connected to your body. If one part is unhealthy, the whole thing is unhealthy. Working on your health is incredibly important if you want to keep an active, supple mind.
Our brains and our mental agility are so important to our quality of life & for the quality of life of those we care for. It is our duty to do all we can to keep them in top shape so that we can continue to benefit the world around us even as we enter our sunset years. Let us not give up or give in too early. After all, there are a great many examples of men and women who contributed great things to the world after they were quite old according to the world's standards. They did not lie down and atrophy. They pressed onward, and greatly influenced the world!