December 15, 2006
Central Penn Business Journal
Christina Olenchek

During the past two months, a group of residents at Country Meadows Retirement Communities’ campus in Lancaster Township have spent a lot of time in the gym. But their workouts have nothing to do with lifting weights or running on treadmills.

Instead, they are exercising their minds. The seniors sit at computers, don headphones and do a series of audio-driven exercises. The goal is to sharpen memory and other cognitive abilities dulled by aging.

The brain-fitness program comes at a time when long-term-care providers are becoming more sophisticated in their efforts to ward off residents’ mental decline. Many providers are going beyond word games and crossword puzzles and embracing programs developed by teams of scientists and doctors.

“This has taken us to the next level,” said Sandy Strathmeyer, who oversees the brain-fitness program for Derry Township-based Country Meadows. “You have to keep stepping it up a notch.”

The program was developed by San Francisco-based Posit Science Corp., which has a research team led by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California. Country Meadows has completed rollouts of the program at its campuses in Derry and Hampden townships and near Allentown and Bethlehem. The program is being introduced at campuses in Lancaster and Berks counties.

Brain fitness features six activities, each with a different purpose. An activity called Tell Us Apart gives the brain practice distinguishing among similar sounds. Another exercise, called Story Teller, strengthens memory by requiring participants to listen to a story and answer detailed questions about it.

One of the most important features of the program is that it calibrates itself to a user’s skill level, Strathmeyer said. That allows brain fitness to continually challenge seniors and make them stretch and strengthen their mental capabilities.

Most of the seniors who have participated are not suffering from any serious cognitive problems such as Alzheimer’s disease. They are independent- or assisted-living residents who are having more “senior moments” than they would like, Strathmeyer said.

Marian Engle was a bit uncertain when staff at Country Meadows encouraged her to try brain fitness. But the 92-year-old soon found that she enjoyed the mental challenge. She comes in each day hoping to improve.

“I tried it, and I kept on going because it was going pretty good,” she said. “You might say I was hooked on it.”

Engle believes her mental exercises have improved her quality of life. She recently went to her audiologist for her annual hearing check. The audiologist told her that her diction had improved, a change Engle credits to the brain-fitness program.

Country Meadows is not the only company that has seen results from mental-exercise initiatives. Fort Smith, Ark.-based Golden Ventures, which operates long-term care facilities in the midstate, has introduced several programs to its residents. One of them, Memory Magic, has greatly improved the attention spans of some patients with Alzheimer’s disease, said Janice Mullen, a director of quality of life for Golden Ventures. The program uses word pairs to encourage conversations and interaction among residents.

“We’re continuously looking for creative, new and innovative products,” Mullen said.

Sharpened minds and improved understanding are not the only benefits of mental-fitness programs, Strathmeyer and Mullen said. Both executives have seen such programs improve some residents’ social skills and lift others out of loneliness or depression.

“It’s given them confidence to try new things,” Strathmeyer said.

Country Meadows expects to bring its brain-fitness program to its campuses in York County early next year. Eventually, the program will come to facilities near Pittsburgh and Frederick, Md.