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The Effect Of Play And Mental Stimulation For The Elderly
Seniors, Play And Mental Stimulation by Jane Thurnell-Read
People talk about old age as a second childhood, and they often mean this in a critical way. But that idea may be something we should cultivate, if we consider the mounting research which shows the importance of play and stimulation for the health of seniors.
A recent study by a team from Rovaniemi Polytechnic in Finland followed 40 people aged between 65 and 81 over a three-month period while they regularly used swings, see-saws and climbing frames at the Santa Claus Sports Institute in Lapland. By the end of that time there were significant improvements in their balance, speed and co-ordination. Many of the participants also reported that they felt better mentally, and that they were empowered by their success in mastering the apparatus.
This research is borne out by an earlier animal study published in July 2003 edition of the journal Neurobiology of Aging. Elderly female mice (equivalent to human females aged about 85) who spent three hours a day on running wheels and playing with rodent toys, showed a marked improvement in their spatial memory to the extent that they had memory capabilities comparable with much younger mice. These results were confirmed when the researches examined the brains of the mice and found physiological changes in the brains of the elderly mice who played.
A study by scientists at the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) in 2005 has found that stimulating the bottom of the feet can have measurable health benefits too. The idea for this study came from seeing people in China walking on rough surfaces for their health. There was already anecdotal evidence of the health benefits of this (e.g. pain relief, sleep enhancement, improved physical and mental well-being), but this was the first scientific study to assess this.
At the end of sixteen weeks the study found that the cobblestone-walkers had “improved physical function [balance and mobility] and reduced blood pressure to a greater extent” than the conventional walkers. It has been suggested that at least some of these benefits are because the cobblestone walking stimulates acupoints on the feet. The results have been so encouraging that the Institute has now made the mats available for sale to the general public.
Falls and fear of falling can affect the quality of life of the elderly. In fact some people enter institutional care solely because they are afraid that they might fall while living on their own. These studies have exciting implications for what can be done to keep the elderly from being traumatised by falls or living lives made unbearable by the fear of falling.
But it’s not only physical activity that’s important. Mental activity also brings measurable health benefits for seniors. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that elderly people who did crossword puzzles four times a week had a risk of dementia that was 47% lower than among those who did the puzzles once a week.
Reviewing the research in recent years Robert Wilson, senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center says that “there’s pretty good evidence” that mind-stimulating activities have an important role to play in Alzheimer’s disease prevention. If your clients don’t fancy doing crosswords, then reading, playing cards, solving puzzles, knitting, gardening or going to museums can all stimulate the mind in the same positive way. The Duke University Health Center has lots more simple ideas about how to 'cross-train the brain'.
Small babies and children naturally seek out stimulation as a part of learning and exploring the world. People in their teens and twenties sometimes become dangerous thrill seekers. As we get older we tend to restrict the amount of input, choose what’s safe, seek out what we know, minimise stimulation. Those who look after the elderly will often seek (with the best of intentions) to cocoon their charges, giving them a regularised day with few surprises.
But research is now showing that we should be challenging people well into their twilight years, encouraging them to stay active, to have fun – to play again like children for whom every day is a great adventure.