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Exercising the mind

Senior center offers clients a range of activities to maintain a well-rounded brain

Despite the talk about brain-fitness games, a single software program will not magically prevent the decline of the brain, experts say. The brain must be exercised in several key areas, including verbal, social, spatial, analytical, creatively and through problem solving, exercise and play, according to research.

That is precisely what local senior centers are attempting to offer their clients.

At Peninsula Volunteers Little House Roslyn G. Morris Activity Center in Menlo Park, the new technologies are reinforced with "real-time" activities. A pilot program, "Googling for Brain Fitness," uses Internet brain-fitness software and Web-searching to stimulate each of the core brain centers. The classes work on 10 areas of brain activity, exposing participants to brief bursts of stimulation, such as one-minute Spanish or one-minute Chinese, instructor Margaret Melaney said.

On a recent Thursday morning, seniors worked digital jigsaw puzzles at jigzone.com, building up levels of complexity. The puzzles exercise the parietal lobes, parts of the brain that are responsible for spatial navigation and short-term memory. Another week, the group will play Rush Hour, a traffic-jam puzzle that involves problem solving and stimulating the frontal lobes, which control spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.

After the puzzles are solved, Melaney gives participants a question to research, based on their individual interests.

Jean Fisher, who enjoys stained glass, was asked to find how many pieces of glass are in the stained-glass window at Coventry Cathedral. The problem was complex, considering there are several stained-glass windows, she said.

Joan Wheelright, 83, a retired physician, searched websites for information about Iran, in advance of a trip she's planned. History, shopping ideas and customs — a whole world — opened up.

"I should do more of this when I go on trips. I usually go in blind," she said.

Carol Ford, 74, took just 10 minutes to finish her "Happy New Year" puzzle, the words spelled out in colorful letters.

"It's good for the mind. It makes you start looking at how things are put together," she said, as she switched to a more complex puzzle with pieces shaped like splintered glass. Brain games help get out of the quagmire of daily tasks and patterns, she said.

For some, the class also helps break old patterns of isolation.

Iceline Adams used to spend most of her time in the nearby computer lab playing solitaire. But the Googling class introduced her to possibilities, broadening her horizons she said.

Brain games are useful tools but they won't do the job in a vacuum, Melaney said. Each week, participants have a homework assignment to do things outside of cyberspace that help fulfill the 10 aspects of brain exercise.

Melaney listed the categories on a whiteboard and asked participants to identify how their activities fit the categories.

Wheelright went to a play, which utilized social and creative parts of the brain; Irene Stern-Kohn went to the Apple store to learn how to use her laptop computer, stimulating social, creative and problem solving; Harold Black walked around San Juan Bautista chasing chickens and videotaping them, stimulating creativity, exercise and play; and Ford went to Tomales Bay to collect oysters "and figure out how to shuck them," she said.

Melaney introduces a new experience into each session, such as teaching the group to shoot pool. It improves eye-hand coordination and analytical skills, plus exercises the social, playful and creative parts of the brain, she said.

But at least one of the new pool players wondered aloud if her new skill would be a negative influence on the group.

Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

"Are we going to turn into bad characters?" she said.

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