Harold Purvis used to fake his way through phone conversations with his granddaughter in South Carolina.
The 83-year-old retired shop teacher had difficulty hearing, so he’d just say, “Uh-ha, uh-ha,” whenever he didn’t understand what she was saying.
Of late, though, Purvis hears every word clearly.
“We talked for 25 minutes straight,” declared Purvis, who lives in the Villa at Morlatton, a retirement community in Douglassville.
Why the sudden change?
It was the eight-week course in brain fitness he took, Purvis said, that made the difference.
In much the same way lifting weights strengthens muscles, performing mental jumping jacks on a computer whipped his brain into shape.
Bonnie Baumgartner, the Villa’s brain fitness coach, said Purvis’ hearing improved because his brain is now able to process sounds faster.
“We’re retraining the brain to be able to distinguish the very smallest parts of speech,” she explained.
In the Villa’s Brain Fitness Center, 86-year-old Clara Glossner stares intensely into a flat-screen monitor.
Connected by head phones to the computer, she matches wits with the PositScience Brain Fitness program.
During an exercise that will last 70 minutes, Glossner is asked to distinguish between a series of similar sounds, such as “sheh” and “cheh.”
The computer makes a sound and flashes hints on the screen – “sheh, as in sherry” and “cheh, as in cherry.”
When Clara clicks on the correct answer, the computer rewards her by sounding a “ding” and flashing an animated character at the bottom of the screen.
The process is repeated with each correct answer. When the user completes the exercise correctly, the animated characters dance or sing.
“I’m learning a lot from it,” says Glossner, a retired elementary school teacher. “I think it’s making me remember things longer.”
Glossner is one of five Villa residents enrolled in an eight-week, 40-session course to re-energize their brains through progressively more difficult exercises that test recognition of sounds, organizational ability and narrative memory.
“Basically, we’re building new neurons in the brain,” says Baumgartner, a certified PositScience instructor.
Core components of the brain, neurons are cells that process and transmit information. With age, the cells can deteriorate and cause memory loss and hearing problems.
The Villa, an independent-living retirement community of 135 residents, began offering the course earlier this year in an effort to stave off brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Similar brain-fitness programs are offered at other Berks County facilities for seniors, including Chestnut Knoll in Boyertown, Columbia Cottage in Wyomissing, Country Meadows in Wyomissing and The Lutheran Home at Topton.
Baumgartner, who gave up teaching preschool to become the Villa at Morlatton’s activities director, said seniors with memory loss often become reclusive. The goal of the brain fitness program, she said, is to keep them active and social for as long as possible.
“We want them to have a good quality of life,” she said.
In the fast lane
Anita Oxenford’s power of recall has improved so much she remembers what the people at the next table in the Villa’s dining room ordered for dinner.
“I heard the people behind us ordering their food, and I remembered it,” said Oxenford, 70, a retired homemaker. “I was never able to do that before.”
Getting to that point, however, was not without its trials.
“Some days, it was mind-boggling,” said Oxenford. “You feel like quitting, but you keep coming back to prove something to yourself.”
PositScience, Baumgartner explains, pushes students to the limits of their mental capacity.
“They’re always working at their threshold,” she said. “They’re always being challenged.”
Ten Villa residents have completed the course, 10 are currently taking it and there’s a waiting list for future sessions.
Bill Oxenford acknowledges it’s difficult, and says the exercises demand that he stay focused and alert.
For a 75-year-old retired pipefitter with a limited experience on a computer, though, making it halfway through the challenging program is a matter of personal pride.
“I feel better about myself,” Oxenford said, “now that I’m able to do it.”