One of the least talked about needs of teachers are classroom volunteers. Classroom volunteers represent an unknown necessity in most schools. They are usually retired seniors who are multifaceted in their abilities and approach toward classroom duties. It could be one-to-one reading, math, or art instruction. Yet, without their helping hands, many children in need of special attention would be lost. Conversely, the seniors are also receiving something in return from the experience or what I like to call “cognitive stimulation.”
A teacher who uses volunteers explains the benefits senior volunteers receive.
“After a few months of volunteering the seniors say they begin to “feel younger; they seem more focused and their ability to follow lessons and work with our most energetic children improved considerably. With this in mind, I decided to research studies about brain fitness and the different approaches brain scientists have suggested to slow down our brain’s aging process, particularly dementia. In 1900, the percent of US adults 65 older was only 4.1%; today it is 12.6 percent and in 2030 it will be 20% (Herzog et al, 2015).
One study linked to the best brain fit approaches was based on the formerly recognized benefits of learning new languages, doing difficult crossword puzzles or taking on intellectualizing stimulating tasks. Working as a school volunteer seemed to satisfy all three brain fit recommendations. The volunteers would have to learn the new language of speaking to young children. Further they would have to oversee language, math and art lessons that perhaps, at first, could seem like a crossword puzzle to their brains? And the art of teaching was definitely an intellectually challenging task.
Moreover, researchers found that physical stimulation could forestall some of the assumed declines associated with old age (Hertzog, 2005). The school volunteers walked on the school grounds, conversed with all ages, and practiced resilience in social settings. This so-called physical stimulation is supported by another study (Weure, 2004) that found that older adults who participated in aerobic exercise (walking) outperformed those in programs for stretching and toning improved cognitive task areas. It was discovered that the most improved cognitive areas were the executive or higher order thinking functions which are essential for planning, multitasking, and making effortless responses to novel situations. Young children are in the present, particularly with their interpretation of the world and social resilience is needed.
Another study by Yaffe (2001) recruited 5,925 women 65 and older at four different medical centers across the US. They asked the women how many blocks they walked or how many flights of stairs they climbed daily and also administered a questionnaire about their level of participation in 22 other physical activities. After eight years the researchers assessed the women on cognitive functioning. The most active women had a 30 percent lower risk of cognitive decline. Interestingly, walking distance was related to increased cognition but walking speed was not. Further, according to researchers even moderate levels of physical activity have proved to limit cognitive decline.
Cognitive declines such as dementia are a mind/body connection and a link between physical activity and disease. That is physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular-related death, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and osteoporosis. Also, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have been associated with a deteriorating cognition.
Lastly, a study by Colcombe (2006) examined the influence of fitness training on potential changes in brain structure. The 6-month study included 59 healthy but sedentary community dwelling volunteers, ages 60 to 79. Brain scans after fitness training showed that even relatively short exercise intervention could begin to restore some of the losses
in brain volume associated with normal ageing.
Dementia will continue to become a major issue in spite of all our scientific research, but these studies suggest some viable solutions. In closing perhaps a good mental exercise for seniors would be to investigate volunteer positions at your local school. It could change you life and maybe even your brain? David Sortino Ph.D., a Graton resident, is director of The Neurofeedback Institute: Go to his blog and/or email him: neurofeedbackinstitute.blogspot.com