Cognitive-based enrichment via objects of the natural world
“Learning ends when you stop asking questions. . .”
--81 year old former telephone operator
By: Anne Basham
¨The process of learning and cognitive enrichment should be considered as part of every activity program serving seniors. The development of new skills translates into brain health and could delay or prevent the progression of dementia.
¨The New York Times reported in 2008 that "When an older adult continues to live in the world of ideas that challenges them with new thoughts and experiences, they not only create new neural pathways but they find new outlets of self expression.
Whether this intellectual engagement happens in a senior center or a university, the results are remarkable."
How do we define learning and when does it end?
Most traditional lecture-based lifelong learning programs stop at number 1 marginalizing those in the 2 and 3 categories.
1. Retirement, Independent Living residents who are mobile and active.
2. Assisted Living. Residents may have some cognitive and physical challenges along with more limitations in activities.
3. Memory Care or Skilled Nursing. These residents may have more cognitive and/or physical challenges and require additional nursing care.
Does learning end at stage 1, 2, or 3? Activity programs are often designed to serve the skill levels and the needs of residents in these different categories but all too often are based on preconceived mindsets.
We believe learning happens whenever cognitive engagement and enrichment takes place. This process continues across the lifespan continuum and can occur regardless as to what societal or medical category the individual may be placed.
Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing states . . . 'as a basic human right, education must be made available without discrimination against the elderly' and that 'educational practices should reflect the principle of the right to ageing, through the appropriate allocation of resources and insatiable educational programmes' (United Nations, 1983 : 43-44).
Addressing Mindsets: The real barriers to the older learner?
Attitudinal---I am too old to learn, fear of failure, or being made to look stupid, too tired, and general lack of motivation.
Situational----Physical limitations as barriers—visual, hearing, ambulation, or cognitive limitations. One needs to consider the impact and influence of pain, depression and the use of medications.
Institutional---Unfortunately institutional barriers may be the largest obstacle in that the long term facility is still based on the medical model in spite of progress being made in changing the institution environment.
Learning and Creativity Go Hand in Hand
Learning and creativity are interconnected in that both are outcomes of meaningful engagement and enrichment. Current research theorizes that when normal channels of verbal communication declines in dementia, other outlets of expression often rise to compensate. Cognitive engagement and creativity can be the precursor to critical thinking and empowerment which are skills not generally promoted in this population.
The Power of Nature
In early pilot programs we surveyed participants to get a better understanding as to what older residents are interested in learning. Half stated that they would be interested in learning things related to nature followed by science and the arts. The older learner has a need perhaps more than any other time in their lives to understand and connect with the natural world and to answer possible questions like, where do I fit in at my age in the universal scheme of things? How can I contribute? As our aging population continues to grow and neurodegenerative diseases and dementia continues to rise we must ask ourselves how can we meet these individuals where they are? What tools can we provide these individuals that will empower them to effectively engage with their world and prompt whole brain learning? There appears to be little by way of research in adaptive educational strategies and approaches for the older learner with cognitive limitations.
ExplorMor Discovery Centers
Just for kids? The discovery centers that we typically find in museums
were inspired by Montessori principles and is centered on object-based and sensory approaches to learning and engagement. The Myers Research Institute has done much research in the connection of Montessori principles and engagement for residents with dementia. They state that agitation, aimless wandering and loss of attention, so prevalent in Alzheimer's patients, decrease not only during the Montessori lesson period, but for an extended period of time. ExplorMor hopes to introduce to partnering institutions the implementation of "enriched environments" by establishing discovery stations in Memory care units.
1.To propose with partner institutions a designated temporary or permanent discovery space that would foster creativity, cognitive-based learning, and meaningful enriched experiences with the natural world.
2. A space that will foster learning across the lifespan and encourage intergenerational partnerships.
3. The space may be facilitated by ExplorMor Ambassadors and volunteers to serve as mediators and prompters of learning.
4.To serve as a place-based center of learning in partnership with area museums and institutions.
ExplorMor programs uses the natural world as the foundation and starting point for prompting engagement, in connecting with memory, as inspiration for creativity, and in prompting narratives. The natural world is a universal language and can bridge cognitive, social, physical, and language barriers reconnecting institutionalized residents with a world they are largely disconnected with.
We offer consultation, resources, and programs for not only senior facilities but also to museums and scientific institutions who are not currently serving this population.
Contact Anne Basham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A special thanks to our former and present program hosts, partners, and sponsors:
Arizona Museum of Natural History
Arizona State University Natural History Collections
International Wildlife Museum
Villa Maria University: Villa Maria Care Center Tucson-Sue Alexander
Sonoran Sea Aquarium
The Court at Tucson Assisted Living
2018 Copyright Anne Basham, ExplorMor Labs LLC. All Rights Reserved.