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Changing Your Elder’s Mind – for the Better

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Dr. Oliver Sacks explains neuroplasticity in his editorial, “This Year, Change Your Mind,” in the New Year’s Day editorial page of the New York Times.  As a geriatric care manager, I have encountered clients whose injuries have induced deficits of some sort from which recovery plans are designed and executed.  Physical injuries such as lost limbs, vision, hearing or others have fairly clear rehabilitation trajectories, and the injured individual can learn and work through them to recover as much of a productive life as possible.

Neurological injuries like those Dr. Sacks offers as examples require remolding an organ that we do not see from injuries that also may be invisible.  As Dr. Sacks explains, neuroplasticity offers the means by which the brain can remold itself to overcome a deficit.  For a geriatric care manager, the deficits do not have to be as dramatic as a spinal cord injury, the onset of blindness or even a stroke.  We see every day the consequences of older adults’ inactivity and the cumulative deficits that can grow out of the under stimulated life.  The brain does lose some of its pathways through natural attrition, and it is critical for a vibrant life for the aging individual to keep working in order to maintain the pathways they already have as well as to create new ones as some of those may become unavailable.  A colleague likens it to commuting in the brain.  There may be detours and rerouting, but an active individual will always find a route home.

There is a case of a 70+ year old client whose spouse is suffering from Alzheimer’s inexorable progression.  While there is little to do to forestall that condition, he takes it upon himself to exercise at his facility’s gym three times a day, he is a voracious reader and he is an active participant in his wife’s care team so that he can be both physically and mentally able to care for his wife to whom he is entirely devoted.  Or the 90+ year old woman who will keep up with her grandchildren when they come to visit – as exhausting as it may be.  She is a brilliant conversationalist, she rarely repeats herself and she completes the New York Times crossword puzzle.  What do they have in common?  They both push the boundaries of the envelope. 

They both are pushing the plasticity of their brains.

Dr. Sacks exhorts us to “change our mind” this year as part of our 2011 resolution.  I would expand that to include all of those on whom an elder or person with special needs depends, and encourage those caregivers to help push the envelope for those in their care in order to effect a change of mind and a robust life in 2011 for all.

Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families throughout metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to Charlotte Bishop.

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