Staying sharp with memory fitness

January 6, 2017
Jeff Watson, Ph.D., Certified Health Education Specialist

Have you ever misplaced your car keys? Or drawn a blank on someone’s name? Or gotten to the store but couldn’t remember why? You’re not alone; we’ve all been there!

Thankfully, Dr. Gary Small and his wife Gigi Vorgan have been researching patterns of memory and forgetfulness for years. Their encouraging work at the UCLA Longevity Center has been published in best-selling books such as The Memory BibleThe Memory PrescriptionThe Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, and their newest: Two Weeks to a Younger Brain.

Because we all want to stay mentally sharp, Erickson Living has developed a three-fold Memory Support program on every campus. “We are just as committed to cognitive health as we are to physical health,” says Margaret Kimbell, D.H.A., vice president of community living, who designed the Memory Support strategy for Erickson Living. 

Memory Fitness highlights Small’s six-week class, helping people stay sharp with fun and useful forms of brain health. Memory Health assists individuals who may have emerging concerns about memory and connects them to relevant resources. Lastly, Memory Care brings solutions to anyone in the middle or later stages of dementia.

Each of the three elements of Memory Support has the same goal: keeping seniors as independent as possible. Every Erickson Living resident—whether living in an apartment home or a continuing care neighborhood—can participate in Memory Support. 

“Our program can help anyone,” Kimbell says, “from those who want to prevent memory problems to those who need additional support because of specific illnesses.”

Getting started with Memory Fitness

In 2006, Erickson Living partnered with Small to test out his Memory Fitness curriculum with older adults. Would it work with retirees? Would it help Americans in their 60s, 70s, and beyond? Could significant, positive changes be measured after only a six-week class? According to the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2011), residents at Oak Crest in Parkville, Md., and Riderwood in Silver Spring, Md., answered with a resounding “yes!”

Residents have reported improved recognition of word pairs, retention of verbal information from lists, and better perceptions of memory.

Going forward with Memory Fitness

Ten years later, Erickson Living communities have over 2,000 Memory Fitness graduates. On every campus the Memory Fitness course is offered at least twice a year for community members and at least once a year for employees. 

Memory Fitness highlights principles for keeping the mind sharp. These principles are supported within Erickson Living communities through several strategies. The Signature Dining program offers brain-healthy food where residents can select nutritious meals from any of the restaurants on campus. At the on-site fitness and aquatics centers, community members can find exciting ways to remain active (physical activity brings vital oxygen to the brain).

Erickson Living also offers numerous educational courses and lectures. Active learning promotes neuroplasticity—the idea that our brains can continue to adapt and grow at any age.

And because socialization helps keep our brains active and strong, there is a kaleidoscope of resident-run groups where people form new friendships and seek out comfortable ways to connect. 

Throughout Erickson Living communities, residents can find interesting and brain-stimulating activities. For example, if two new residents were strolling through the hallways at Charlestown in Catonsville, Md., they might spot a “Mind Over Matter” cart in the clubhouse lobby—filled with reading material and memory games. If they were visiting Ann’s Choice in Warminster, Pa., they would encounter a weekly “Brain Trivia” challenge on the community’s in-house TV station. If they were thumbing through the fitness calendar at Brooksby in Peabody, Mass., they could find a course in guided meditation. 

“Through the Memory Fitness program, we keep residents informed about memory-preserving strategies that have solid scientific evidence behind them,” Kimbell says. “We don’t want to waste our time on things that haven’t been scientifically proven to help a person’s memory.” 

To find out more about Memory Fitness or any other element of Memory Support, ask your doctor, or if you’re already an Erickson Living resident, see a staff member in Resident Life. 

As Jon Ruskin said: “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

The Big Four

Dr. Gary Small has created four simple phrases that sum up strategies for a health memory:

• “Take it in!” (eat wisely)

• “Pump it up!” (exercise daily)

• “Use it big!” (keep on learning)

• “Learn to breathe!” (reduce stress)