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Engaging senior spirit to promote mental health and well-being

Thu, 04 Aug 2011 09:57:00
5 / 5 (2 Votes)
Article by:
Marie Pauline Cabansagan
Elder enjoying book being read by an activity specialist - Photo courtesy of engageasyouage.com.
While many caregivers and senior homes focus their time and resources on giving elderly clients physical care, a local group is devoted to helping nourish their minds.

Engage as You Age is an organization based in San Francisco that focuses on pairing up seniors with “activity specialists” – aiming to stimulate the minds of elderly clients with conversations, lessons and creative activities.

Understanding that many seniors – especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia – are in need of companionship and mental stimulation, the organization works closely with the families of patients and acts as an auxiliary service to care homes by providing cognitive and social interactions.

“It’s a very grassroots movement that speaks to what’s missing in the industry,” said Ben Lewis, the founder of Engage as You Age. “It just seems like common sense that seniors would need to regularly interact with someone with the same interests who could help stretch their minds.”

The group’s approach to providing mental support for seniors is threefold: weekly one-on-one sessions that last about two to three hours, with carefully planned activities designed to stimulate the mind that may take place in the patient’s residence or retirement home; facilitated group discussions on a wide range of topics; and low-tech solutions that allow older adults to connect with their families online.

The inspiration for Engage as You Age came from Lewis’ own experience in spending quality time with a senior after he first moved to San Francisco. He regularly visited Anna, a 91-year-old patient confined to a retirement community and suffering numerous health problems, holding long conversations with her about history – a subject they both loved. Eventually, Lewis found other people to visit and befriend Anna.

“She would come alive whenever we visited,” Lewis said. “It made a huge difference in her life.”

After Anna passed away, leaving some money to Lewis with a mandate for him to share with other seniors what he had shared with her, Lewis realized there was a “profound need” to reach out to the more than one million seniors in the Bay Area, and that this need tapped into both his interests and experiences.

As the organization grew, Lewis continued to try to find ways to help socially isolated and depressed seniors through social interaction.

“They tend to not have a voice, or they need help, but have a hard time accepting it,” he said.

Each of their sessions is custom-designed based on the needs, interests and passions of the patient; no two sessions look alike. Activities could range from reading a book or newspaper and then critically discussing the content afterwards to painting or sculpting, or to going for a walk and enjoying the outdoors.

“People develop a rhythm, but we like to shake things up a bit every now and then by introducing new activities,” Lewis added.
Activity specialists – who work with only one or two seniors at a time and are only asked to make a six-month commitment – are chosen very carefully and are matched with patients whom they could complement well in terms of personality and interests. Because of this, Engage as You Age employs people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and many of them are professionals with years of experience in their given field.

All of the 250 specialists go through a thorough background check and are asked to write essays about what kind of people they would like to work with, in order to determine which patient could best benefit from interacting with them.

“We get to know them [employees] first and figure out their comfort zone,” Lewis said. “And it’s not just about interests; it’s also the personalities. It’s like trying to set up two of your friends. It creates a wonderful dynamic.”

One such example is Bridget Wynne, an employee who once worked with an elderly woman named Maimie. Wynne was a rabbi who ran a nonprofit organization that helped people get connected with Jewish life. She found Engage as You Age after reading about it in a news article.

Upon getting hired, she was matched up with Maimie, who was also Jewish and was then writing her autobiography as a Holocaust survivor. Because Maimie’s vision was failing, Wynne helped edit her book and trace back her genealogical history – something she already did as a hobby.

“She had a fascinating life,” Wynne said. “I read the book chapters out loud to her and rounded up some of her family history. She was a really good writer.”

Wynne and Maimie’s collaborative work resulted in Maimie’s writing getting published in a magazine and an anthology. “She expanded my sense of connection to history,” Wynne said.

Engage as You Age employees are given numerous details about who they’ll be working with. “We have them work with someone who they genuinely believe they can help and connect with,” said Lewis. “We paint a vivid picture – then help them construct a game plan.”

Engage as You Age makes it a point to get to know each elderly person before finding a specialist to work with them. They work with the families of seniors and gather as much information about them as possible.

“We try to get a snapshot of who they really are, even from years ago,” said Lewis. “Each person is different, so all our activities are custom-tailored to the individual.”

He added that the program has immense benefits for the seniors, which are “not something that can be captured in data.” The biggest improvement is an emotional result, according to Lewis, as they become more evidently happier.

“Their face lights up when you come in,” he said. “They look forward to visits. We give them something to think about, a different focus.”

Selma is an 84-year-old woman in a care home who is visited by employee Stacey Palevsky every week. Palevsky said that although Selma is more highly functioning than others in her facility, she is very lonely and has a serious need for social interaction.

Palevsky – a former journalist – regularly reads news articles aloud to Selma on a variety of topics she enjoys, such as politics and women’s rights, and the two spend time in debate and critical discussion.

“It’s rewarding to know that I make a difference for her,” Palevsky said. “She has told me, point blank, that she loves and adores me and that I help her sleep better because she’s more stimulated. She told me I help her feel normal.”

The program’s success is also measured by the positive feedback given by the families, as well as regular evaluations done by the activity specialists. Lewis requires detailed session reports from his employees in order to gauge the success of each visit and for continually developing best practices.

Not every session is a complete success, however. Lewis admitted that his specialists sometimes encounter difficult sessions when patients are not having their best day, or when family members place unrealistic expectations on the visits. Nonetheless, Lewis feels that his approach mostly works because of all the positive responses he gets, and the changes he sees in each senior’s life.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to influence more Bay Area residents to care about creating meaningful social interactions with the elderly.

“I’d like to see a culture wherein people are enraged that so many [older] people are slipping through the cracks and are very disconnected,” he said. “This is the bigger picture that I’m fired up about … it’s changed me.”

Palevsky agreed that there is a need for people to shift their thinking about the importance of socialization for older adults. “We’re so willing to pay for medications, surgeries and housing to keep people alive and healthy, but those things do not make life worth living and don’t make you happy,” she said. “Happiness comes from the people around us … you can’t put a price tag on it.”


 
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