Is the loss of mental capacity one of your fears about aging? Similarly to physical muscle mass and strength, brain power can suffer from lack of use. Our brains have something called cognitive reserve, which is the networks of connections that exist among brain cells. Cognitive reserve differs with individuals, and research has demonstrated that those with greater reserve tend to function mentally at higher levels. These connective networks can be preserved, and even improved, with mental exercise. More challenging exercises will lead to increased benefits. A 2012 Harvard Health Publication recommends socialization, physical exercise (to increase blood flow to the brain), lifelong learning activities, and getting out of one’s comfort zone as methods to help maintain cognitive reserve.
It can be easy for adults of any age to become comfortable with preferred friends and activities, but when our minds aren’t stretched by new experiences and social contacts, we run the risk of losing cognitive reserve by becoming “stuck in a rut.” Actively engaging in the world around us in a variety of ways will encourage our brains to create new connections among cells, which can help us avoid these ruts and stay mentally sharp.
Volunteer work is an excellent way to share your talents with others or practice skills which may not otherwise be used often. One can volunteer occasionally, such as participating in United Way’s Day of Caring (coming up on October 14th! Call 717-243-4805 for information or register at www.uwcarlisle.org/docvolunteers/). If you prefer regularly scheduled service with a community organization, church ministry, school program, non-profit group, etc., volunteer opportunities in our area for those who are 55+ are available through RSVP of the Capital Region (phone 717-541-9521 or visit www.rsvpcapreg.org) or you can contact a program of interest directly.
Participation in local events and activities are another way to enhance a daily routine. Local newspapers offer a community calendar listing of local happenings, as well as advertisements about special events. Bulletin boards in libraries and grocery stores may be another source of information. With a number of colleges nearby, opportunities abound to attend lectures, art exhibitions, vocal and instrumental musical programs, theatrical performances, and other cultural events given by students, professors, and well-known visiting professionals. Some events may be free while others may charge for admission. Colleges may also offer members of the community the option of taking non-credit courses designed to teach new skills or expand one’s knowledge about a specialized topic. For example, HACC has upcoming classes in sign language and glass lampworking, while York College is offering digital photography and self-defense. Courses may be only a couple of hours on a single day, or may stretch across an entire semester, and fees vary by course.
Travel can provide opportunities to fulfill all of the brain-stimulating methods mentioned earlier; socialization, physical exercise, obtaining new knowledge and skills, and stepping out of established comfort zones. Planning the details of a trip can certainly promote brain function, but for those who wish to focus on the trip itself, there are organizations which will manage the daily components of travel such as lodging, transportation, and scheduling for you. One such organization which specializes in educational travel for older adults is Road Scholar. Formerly known as Elderhostel, they offer over 5,000 programs in 150 countries. Travelling with an established group may be less intimidating for those who would otherwise be going solo. Intergenerational trips are available if you wish to travel with your grandchildren. Trips primarily are all inclusive and specify an activity rating, so you can match your budget and physical ability with an appropriate adventure. Road Scholar does offer grants for some folks who have financial limitations or who are caregivers in need of respite. Each trip also has a suggested reading list for those who wish to obtain background information and maximize their learning. For those who wish to combine travel with volunteer work, volunteer vacations are growing in popularity. An internet search of “volunteer vacations for seniors” will connect you with a number of companies which offer these opportunities, including some trips which are tax-deductible. To avoid surprises, do your homework before booking a trip and speak with a local travel professional to learn about reputable companies.
Are you ready to explore something new? Keep an open mind when seeking opportunities. Take inspiration from Doreetha Daniels, who started college at age 92 and graduated from College of the Canyons, CA in 2015 at the age of 99; or Nola Ochs, who received her undergraduate degree in 2007 at age 95 and her Masters degree in 2010 at age 98 from Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Stretching your brain could lead to some amazing life experiences!
Karen Kaslow, RN