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JF&CS’ Brain Health Bootcamp Keep Seniors Sharp and Social

By JF&CS Marketing

Our brain is at the center of everything we do. Whether we are doing work that we love, enjoying hobbies, playing with our children or enjoying time with family – our brain is there to support us.

Because of everything the brain does for us, it’s important to keep it healthy. As we age, our brain health changes, and not always in ways we can predict. Injuries, strokes, mood disorders, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s are more frequent in elder adults. And while some of these changes are inevitable, which can be scary, a growing body of research has shown that a person’s lifestyle and actions are linked to cognitive health and dementia. We have more control than we realize over our brain health.

An estimated 47 million people across the world are living with dementia, with that number expected to reach 66 million cases by 2030, and 131 million by 2050. Those numbers may seem daunting, but there are things you can do to help keep your brain healthy. A recent report linked 40 percent of the world’s dementia cases to risk factors which theoretically could be modified. The study recommends seniors keep cognitively, physically, and socially active to help protect against dementia and other cognitive impairments. In short, by keeping your brain active, you can keep it healthier for longer.

Georgia Gunter, a Geriatric Care Manager with JF&CS’s Aviv Older Adult Program, was aware of these types of studies for many years. Georgia has a Masters in Gerontology and Counseling and certifications in working with those with dementia. Using her expertise and passion for the subject, she created Brain Health Bootcamp to help seniors maintain and improve brain function.

“When people first get diagnosed, they may be scared and wonder what they can do to help maintain cognitive functioning,” Georgia says. “I wanted to create a program that could really help older adults in those beginning stages of cognitive impairment.”

“I had seen some other programs around the U.S. where they were doing early stage, minor cognitive impairment classes,” she continues. “I thought, ‘we could bring that to JF&CS.’ We received a wonderful donation from the Weinstein Foundation, and I did a lot of research, and started the pilot program in March of 2018.”

That first class was very successful, and JF&CS has been continuing the program ever since.

Cognitive Function

Some may consider only a person’s thought processes and memory as the brain’s main role. The National Institute on Aging, a division on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, however, refers to brain health as including four key functions:

  1. Cognitive Health: How well one learns, thinks, and remembers things
  2. Motor Function: The ability to control one’s body and balance
  3. Emotional Function: How a person reacts and respond to emotions
  4. Tactile Function: How well someone responds to sensations such as pain, pressure, and temperature

The Brain Health Bootcamp works to strengthen most if not all aspects of cognition.

“We have experimented and changed how the class looks and works through the years,” Georgia says. “When we first started, we only had one class with varying levels of people. So, we split and created two classes, one that goes at a little slower pace and one that goes a little faster for those with mild cognitive impairment or who don’t have a diagnosis yet but recognize that things are changing a bit.”

They continue to modify the classes still to find what works best for the participants. With the pandemic, the classes had to change to be all online. Today, one of the classes is in person and one is still on Zoom.

Georgia explains: “When living with dementia, the things you can do to help your brain is to stay physically active, cognitively active and social engagement. You can be at home doing computer games to work on your memory, but if you’re not having any social interaction, it’s not as beneficial. You really need to be with people, whether it is on Zoom or in-person.”

Brain Health Bootcamp Classes

The classes incorporate three aspects of cognitive exercises: the physical exercise, the cognitive exercise, and a social environment. “The make-up of the class is the same, whether it’s on Zoom or in person,” Georgia says.

Each class starts with everyone greeting each other. Then, in the first hour, Ling Olaes, our JF&CS Expressive Therapist, leads the group in some gentle exercises, stretches and seated yoga. Ling uses a theme of the day to weave everything the group does together. Participants then do a choreographed dance to stimulate the brain as they learn and remember a sequence of movements.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s usually to upbeat music and it just gets everyone going,” Georgia says.

Then the physical exercise portion ends with a mantra, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free of suffering. May you know peace.”

The group then takes a 15-minute break. Participants get a snack, rest, and talk with each other. It’s a great opportunity to build stronger relationships with other people in the class.

The second half of the program is centered around cognitive function. Josephine Shell, a certified cognition coach, starts with some fun, easy games to warm up everyone’s minds. She then uses a variety of questions to target different parts of the brain. The brain teasers vary so that the class can address different people’s strengths and weaknesses. Josephine, or “Fini” as the group calls her, also brings her therapy dog, “Bubala,” to interact with the in-person group.

“Everyone is very supportive of each other,” says Georgia. “When people are answering questions, we don’t put anyone on the spot. If you want to answer, you answer. What we like to say is, ‘coming up with the right answer isn’t as important as thinking about how to come up with that answer.’ Working your brain is what is helpful. So, we make the questions hard enough that you really have to think about it. And if you don’t have the right answer that’s okay.”

Joining A Class

The classes are once a week, open to everyone, and usually gather between 10-15 participants. Aviv Older Adult Services would like to add a third class once there is enough interest. The cost per person is $25 a class for in-person and $20 for Zoom. There are also a limited number of scholarships available for those who need financial assistance.

Participants can come from anywhere in Metro Atlanta. Most of the participants learn about the Brain Health Bootcamp from word-of-mouth, doctor or counselor referrals, independent living communities and hospitals like Emory and Northside. If necessary, transportation can be arranged. Unfortunately, there are very limited scholarships for the transport.

“We’d like to bring interested people over from the Jewish Tower and Zaban, but there is a cost to the transportation and class, so additional funding will help,” says Georgia.

Anyone interested in the class should simply visit or call AgeWell Atlanta at 1-866-AGEWELL. There is an initial visit with Georgia so she can assess which class would be best for each individual. Then, the fun can begin!