By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” -Edith Wharton
A great deal has been written about the benefits of volunteerism. There are studies that show that volunteering has positive health benefits for people, but new research also hints that there are benefits just for staying busy.
According to new research by Festini, McDonough and Park (2016), self-described busy people tend to have better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning and crystalized knowledge.
Even more surprising, CNN reported this July on a study by Mayeda from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health who found that mothers who did not work for pay experienced a greater decline in memory years later than mothers who did work for pay.
What does this mean for older adults? You stay active by being active.
Many who volunteer are not surprised by this advice. Whether our older family members work in retirement, babysit grandchildren, or volunteer at their place of worship or other places, they all know that being busy is important for their health. However, this new advice may indicate it does not matter if you are doing something important, just that you are doing something. It may also seem that those who juggle multiple roles keep their memories sharper. This could, of course, be due to the financial gains of employment, but it may be due to always keeping your brain on.
For some people with cognitive decline already, we need to make a little more effort to keep them engaged. So many elders think little of their abilities and skills, focusing instead on what they have lost. Given that, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some successful pairings of people’s remaining skills with volunteer roles to show that a little creativity can help almost anyone find an appropriate way to give back.
Meet Lena. Lena had many bad days. On these days, she was almost catatonic, staying in the same position for hours at a go moaning softly to herself. She also had some good days. On her good days, she would ask the same questions over and over. She followed direction really well and had impeccable handwriting. I dictated letters to her (to her brother who wrote her faithfully every week). While we collaborated on what to write, she mostly wrote what I suggested. Prior to this, her brother had not received a letter from her in a decade. He was so pleased to hear from her in her own handwriting. He knew she had had help, but for a minute, he felt like he had his sister back. And Lena may not have remembered afterwards that she wrote a letter, but while she was writing, she felt engaged and connected.
A colleague’s company does something similar and encourages memory impaired residents to cut out coupons for others. A staff member or another volunteer helps them sort the coupons into the appropriate categories (e.g. health and beauty, non-perishables, produce). They leave these coupons near the receptionist desk and anyone can help themselves to them. All volunteers felt a sense of purpose because they were helping their neighbors save money.
These are just two examples of tapping into people’s remaining skills and abilities.
I invite all caregivers to write in about their creative ways of helping elders stay involved, busy, and engaged. Describe the limitation hurdles and what activity meant the most. With any luck, we can all benefit from the collective knowledge.