Monthly Archives: March 2014

Do Brain Games Work ? (Part Two)

Brain Games won’t go away because there is such a strong impetus to improve memory in older adults now that we know that brain neurons do regenerate. The first results were equivocal (see Part One); later results are more encouraging. Last fall (September 2013) the scientific journal Nature published a study by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco showing that a computer driving game did improve short-term memory and long-term focus in older adults. These findings are significant because the research found that improvements weren’t limited to the game but also appeared to be linked to a strengthening of older brains overall, helping them to perform better at other memory and attention tasks.

Of greater importance, perhaps, is that in addition, brain monitoring during the study showed that in older adults, game training led to bursts in brain waves associated with attention:  the patterns were similar to those seen in much younger brains.

And there’s more. In January, 2014,  a randomized trial of cognitive training in older healthy adults found that gains in reasoning and speed through brain training lasted as long as ten years. This study, financed by the National Institute of Health, recruited 2,832 volunteers with an average age of 74. The participants were divided into three training groups for memory, reasoning and speed of -processing. There was also one control group.

The groups took part in ten training sessions of 60 to 75 minutes over five to six weeks. Researchers measured the effect of the training five times over the next ten years.

Five years after training, all three groups still demonstrated improvements in the skills in which they had trained. However, the training did not carry over into other areas. But after ten years, the reasoning and speed-of-processing continued to show improvement.

There was also a curious, unexpected and gratifying finding: people in the reasoning and speed-of-mental-processing group had 50% fewer accidents than those in the control group!

Do Brain Games Work? (Part One)

I read a fascinating article by Tara Parker Pope in the March 11 edition of the New York Times. I thought I’d summarize and comment on it here.

As the aging population in the United States grows larger, brain game manufacturers have been working harder to help the aged keep mentally alert.

Luminosity, for example, the best known of these brain game developers, has users match tile patterns to challenge memory. The patterns are simple at first, then grow increasingly more difficult, demanding more memory from the user. This game, like most brain games, is designed to encourage active use of the brain.

Luminosity has fifty million subscribers who depend on it to keep mentally active until late old age. Other cognitive training centers, like Cogmed (British) and Neronix (Israeli) and many more,  are developing similar programs to prevent intellectual decline and promote intellectual vigor in old age.

Sources of encouragement for the development of methods of preventing senility through brain games now  includes Medicare and Medicaid, which are lending their support for what Neuronix calls “new hope for Alzheimer’s disease.” They are considering reimbursement to oldsters who enroll in “memory fitness” programs. This is a major shift in the brain fitness business, whose primary focus used to be   on helping children with attention-deficit problems and in improving academic performance. Now the emphasis in brain research is to find effective ways to stave off memory loss or prevent Alzheimer’s.

In recent years the search for a website or video game has became the “holy grail  of neuroscience”, said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Unfortunately, as Dr. Doraiswamy discovered, the science of cognitive training has not kept up with the hype. We are simply not there yet. “Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies devoted to brain games go beyond the data,” he said. “We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time.”

Over the past twenty years, neuroscientists have  demonstrated that the brain regenerates neurons until late in life. This encouraging fact grew out of research with humans and animals and was the reason for so much hope and optimism about the brain’s never-ending vigor.; It has led to a burst of creative ways to tap into that vigor.

Those endeavors  resulted in a tsusami of brain games. Old people did well on them, and that was encouraging as well, but critical questions remain about whether an intervention that challenges  the brain—a puzzle, learning a new language or improving skill on a video game, can either raise intelligence or stave off normal memory loss.

In February 2013, an analysis of the newest studies at the University of Oslo concluded that while players do get better at their games, the increase in skill has not been shown to transfer to other tasks. In other words, playing Sudoku or an online matching game makes you better at the game,  but it doesn’t make you better at math or help you remember names.

And so, we can say that although there is a keen interest in and growing market for cognitive training tools, the results for improving memory across the board for aging adults have been mixed. However, the jury is still out as scientists continue to try figure out ways to help the regenerating neurons cross over to other areas of the brain and become more versatile.

On a personal note: I find reading about these studies fascinating because, as a retired psychologist, I have a continuing professional interest in them. However, I can also confidently say that, from observing elderly people (including myself) who keep their minds occupied by continuing to learn new skills or improving existing ones, the theories behind these brain games are credible.


Mindfulness signifies presence of mind. It means to be thoughtful about what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. One should be attentive and aware of what is happening in the moment. To do this, one should maintain a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings, and mind. It is easy to keep such an inventory in mind when you realize that to be fully aware of life as you live it helps you to live it well.

To be mindful of what you are doing is desirable at any age of course, but it’s especially desirable for old people.  We need to be sure  we’re taking the right bus to visit our sister or  our doctor because retracing  our steps takes time and energy (and can lead to confusion). We  want to avoid slippery walks because fractures take so long to heal.  We may need to read a passage in a book more slowly to be sure that  we have fully taken in its meaning.

These issues come up in assisted living. Dolly, a new resident of The Hallmark, raised her hand at a meeting and asked to speak on this topic, although she didn’t put it that way. She said,  “I did something very dumb and I want to tell you about it. I was talking on my cell while I was  going to get the mail and I tripped on the last step. Boom. Multiple fractures and two weeks in the hospital. My daughter said, ‘Ma, you’re a spring chicken in the heart, but not in the bones.’ She’s very good natured for all the trouble I caused her.”

Dolly went on to tell us that her recovery was slow and painful and it taught her to watch where she  is going. “Where’s the fire?” I ask myself now. She limped back to her seat.

She reminded me of my own headlong fall some years ago while I was running to answer the phone. The phone could have waited. The caller would have left a message. I’m embarrassed to say that I was in my late seventies at the time, a little late to learn common sense but thank Heaven I finally learned it. It taught me to be more deliberate—mindful, I guess.

When I had my hip operation, the doctor told me to get up and walk after the second day.  I hesitated to do it and my hospital roommate, Mrs. Jaffee, said, “I think the doctor is crazy. Who walks on a broken bone?”.  She just  laid back on her pillow and picked up the  phone to call a friend to bring a turkey sandwich.

I wanted to be mindful of doctor’s orders and my own vulnerability as well. What to do? I started out very slowly on my walker, silently agreeing with Mrs. Jaffee that the doctor was crazy.

I was inching down the corridor where I met Nate Glazier, whom I knew from my orthopedist’s waiting room. He was practicing on his walker and was very deliberate with each step. I told him that Mrs. Jaffee was sitting up in bed eating a turkey sandwich and that I thought I should go back and do the same. Nate said,  “If Dr. Sherman says we gotta do it, then we gotta do it. You just have to think about what you’re doing. You want to be mindful!”, he shouted back at me, because I was loitering in the hallway unsure of going further. I took slow steps at first and we crept down the corridor together.

“That’s the ticket,” Nate said. “Happy medium. Not too slow, not too fast.”

That sounded like mindfulness to me, so I moved a little faster.

Jiro Ono, 89: A World-Class Perfectionist

Jiro Ono from Japan is the world’s oldest chef. He is the owner and chef of the sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi, in Tokyo. He was first awarded Three stars (its highest honor) in the coveted Michelin Guide to Tokyo in 2008. Now, near ninety, his star intact, he is still preparing sushi. His restaurant is right next to the Ginza metro entrance in the basement of a building in Tokyo. This is a modest entrance to great meal.

A meal at Sukiyabashi consists of  twenty pieces of sushi served one at a time and costs 30,000 Japanese yen (about three hundred and seventy dollars). The meal lasts about fifteen or twenty minutes. Those who have eaten there say that the meal may be fleeting in time but, owing to its perfection, it lasts forever in memory. The dining arrangements are unusual: there are only ten seats and no set menu, no appetizers, and no changes of menu allowed. Despite these restrictions, people from all over the world flock to Jiro Ono’s restaurant for the privilege of eating a sushi dinner designed by a master. Jiro Ono’s standards are high and have even been deemed  “impossible.”

All of these elements go into his preparation for the day: first, his son bicycles early in the morning to the markets to find the best catch of the day. After that, Chef Ono meets with specialists in shrimp, eel, or octopus to see the fish for himself and confirm its quality.

Jiro Ono, this connoisseur of sushi, was born in 1925, left home at the age of nine and has been making sushi ever since. It is remarkable that he knew exactly what he wanted to do at such a young age. He seems to have had a calling. In Japan there has always been a ritual to making and serving sushi.  Its best practitioners are considered artists.

Although Japan has declared him a national treasure, he recently replied, “All I want to do is make better sushi.” Before cooking his octopus, for example, he used to massage it up to thirty minutes to soften it. He increased the time as he grew older,  believing that it was not as soft as he could get it. Now he will message it for up to forty minutes to give it an even softer texture and better taste. He always tastes his food as he makes it, and he dislikes holidays because he prefers to be working. As he is such a perfectionist, it comes as no surprise that Jiro also has his own rice supplier. Jiro is described as a shokunin, a person who embodies the artisan spirit, a person who embodies the relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft. This unflagging effort towards improvement is also an important Japanese ideal called kaizen

Because the restaurant does not have a menu, the food that will be served at any meal is recited to the patron by his server. They do not accept credit cards. Tables are booked for the next three months, but anyone contemplating a visit and a meal at Jiro Ono’s Sukiyadoshi retaurant should make a reservation at least six months in advance.

Age is no obstacle. Jiro Ono plans to be there in the kitchen as chef and owner when you arrive.

Manny and Benny Survey the Competition

“So why you looking so downhearted, Benny? You, the brightest star in the old folks firmament. You, the answer to a young girl’s dream?”

“My ace has just been trumped.”

“What happened?”

“You miss the lecture on ‘Live longer, be happier’?”

“Of course. Live forever, pay Brookdale forever, period, end of story.”

“No, it’s worse than that.”

“What could be worse than paying Brookdale forever?”

“I’ll tell you.” Benny pulls a leaflet from his pocket and skims it. “Listen to this. Last year this old guy, Faujah Sing, became, ‘the oldest person known to run a marathon, at age 101 in Hong Kong…’”

“No fooling!”

“‘…completing  five miles in one hour and 32 seconds.’ A hundred and one years old! Compared to him, I’m practically a baby, and I call an ambulance when I have to walk to the corner!”

“Depressing, isn’t it?”

“Here’s one that’s worse. This time a woman in a wheelchair…”

“I beg you, don’t tell me.”

“…Desiline Victor. And she’s even older! One hundred and two. Listen to this. The president’s in on it too. She sat in line for several hours waiting to vote in her Florida polling station on Election Day in 2012. And here’s the president part. It says, ‘Her persistence and dedication to exercise her right to vote caught the attention of President Obama, who acknowledged it in his State of the Union address.’”

“Get outta here!”

“Yeah! This woman who don’t know when it’s time to quit, and he gives her a big hello by naming a bill after her, this , this—what would you call her?”

“Wheelchair voter?”

“Good enough. So she got to get a bill named after her, and boy is it fancy: ‘Desaline’s Free and Fair Democracy Act’. And it says here that this is supposed to make it easier for everyone to vote.”

“I never had a minute’s trouble voting. They knew me”,  says Manny.

“Me neither. A couple of years I worked in the election. My assemblyman made it happen.”

“Well, now Desaline finally got hers.”

“So whaddya say we go shoot a little pool?”, says Benny, folding his newspaper. “But not too late. I’m seeing someone for dinner.”

“I hear you, lover boy.”

Ageless Gymnasts, Unusual Leader

As reported in The New York Times of March 2, 2014, Thomas Mickens, a former prisoner, is now an aerobics instructor to a large group of seniors in the Rochedale Village Senior Center in Queens, New York.

The class begins at 8:30 am, and these enthusiastic oldsters, sixty to ninety-years-old, under his direction, give their all, pushing, reaching. and stretching for an hour. The exercises include lifting one, two, or three-pound weights and stretching their muscles in standing and sitting positions. At one point they do The Wave in their chairs, and Mickens urges them on. “Looking good! Work with me! A little higher!” He uses a rhythm-and-blues records to keep the class up and moving.

Is this all too much for his ageing clientele? Not a bit of it said Audrey Williams, who is still lean and trim at 84. She drives about ten blocks to get to class. “I go to four of his classes a week”, she said. The workout make her feel so good that she goes to another one of the classes he teaches in Rockaway as well.

Mr. Mickens is fulfilling his mission to bring fitness to older adults, and he hopes to expand his exercise empire, called The Tommy Experience, to reach seniors throughout the country. His own personal experience is a far cry from the healthy world of aerobics. While transforming others, he is also transforming himself. When he was a young man of twenty-five in 1989, he was a drug dealer and notorious.

At that time he was described by one of the arresting officers as one of the five top drug dealers in southeastern Queens. He had a widespread operation, with more than fifty people working for him. Young as he was, he made so much money that he owned a five-bedroom house in an affluent neighborhood,  twenty-one luxury cars, including a Rolls  Royce, and a 38-foot yacht that he kept near a condominium he owned in California. All this luxury and high-living was acquired through a well-organized drug network. At the time of his trial in 1989, prosecutors estimated that he made more than 2.5 million dollars from the sale o f cocaine alone. This estimate did not even include down payments on properties and cars.

Mr. Mickens spent twenty years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. While he was in solitary, his mother died, and the combination of his mother’s death and his time alone in prison may have been life-changing for him. He told this story to one of his classes recently.

“My mother was in a nursing home. She was half-paralyzed from a stroke, and no one would help or motivate her. I want to help you because I couldn’t help my mother. Every one of you, I see as my mother.”

During his long confinement, Mr. Mickens had plenty of time to consider how he wanted to live his life once he was free. As soon as he was released, he set about doing it. He worked for a fitness group, eventually leading two senior aerobic classes a week in fitness instruction, and got his certification as a physical fitness trainer.

It is ironic that Mr, Mickens demonstrated his intelligence, energy and organization ability in his early life and used it to destroy other human lives through drugs. Now, twenty years later, after prison with a lot of time to think about the course his life had taken, he has been able to turn his life around to enhance old people’s lives through exercise. These days he plans to use his new-found freedom in the service of exercise. As president and CEO of The Tommy Experience, he wants to turn his company focus on older adults into an international brand . He sees exercise and everything related d to it as the new, good gospel.

The Conductor

A famous conductor in his late seventies came to assisted living after  being reassured  by his assistant, who took care of the arrangements that his apartment could  accommodate a piano. In fact, the devoted young man arranged for an added room for himself as well because Ari Breitenbach required  special care. He had fallen off the podium in Leipzig while conducting an impassioned Beethoven’s Fifth and had  to be hospitalized there for several weeks before being flown home.  Fruit baskets and flowers galore  were sent to his room by embarrassed citizens and city fathers,  but these failed to soothe the maestro’s pain or temper. “These clowns are just the reason I left Europe in the first place. They can’t do anything right.”

This pejorative did not upset anyone. He would say the same about
shaving cream or shirt collars. He was very temperamental, as befits a famous musician (or bad tempered, if you  think of him as an ordinary citizen). “That they let into Julliard!”  was a  saying of his that was adopted by conductors and other musicians.

After a lengthy, testy convalescence on Central Park West, he was walking again. Then his housekeeper left for Chicago to help her daughter with a new baby and he couldn’t stand the nurse who was hired to look after him. She talked baby-talk to him when she was not on the phone talking gibberish to all the world. He called his assistant day and night to complain until Udi, desperate, found him a place in assisted living.

The two of them were walking slowly  arm-in-arm in front of the residence one sunny day when Benny passed them, walked on and then hobbled back.

“Hey you, what’s-your-name! You got the cane wrong!”

“What’s my name?”

“You got it so it hits the ground  sidewise!”


“Look at me.”

“Look at you!”

“Look at me, don’t look at me, whatever. Just  hold it to the left and push down.”

“Like this?”

“Yes, yes, but don’t be so dainty.”

“Like this?”

“A little more oomph. Like you mean it!”

“Like this?”

“You got it. I think you got it, Professor Higgins.”

“Professor Higgins?”

“It’s a musical. They made a movie. Stage first. Rex Harrison. I loved Rex Harrison.”

“You know something? He couldn’t sing a note, but so did I.”

Too Much Too Soon

Bella, aged 83, a new resident,  can be something of a chore and a bore to be around. People don’t talk about their past lives too often at The Hallmark. There   is an air of “been there, done that” when someone  brings up the past, even on a subject as benign as ceiling fans or vintage motor cars. Bella’s a little differentShe’s quick to tell anyone who’ll listen about boils and itches, two operations for appendicitis, because, “mind you” (her usual preface), “they couldn’t find it first time around.”

Could this be true? Everyone at the table last night doubted it, Marion said, but hoped it was true. If it wasn’t true, it might be the beginnings of dementia.

Yes, it comes to that. When an old person says something outlandish, it’s better to think of her as demented rather than label her a liar! People don’t have as much reason to lie when they’re old anyway, because by that time the triumphs and the disappointments are pretty much over. For some lucky ones, the disappointments—especially the disappointments—have been forgotten. For others, the son-in-law who went bankrupt or the granddaughter on drugs are too painful to talk about. But not for Bella. She told how the daughter, the apple of her  father’s eye,  is living in a squat in Williamsburg and her boyfriend  isn’t even a college graduate! She told how her son (the girl’s father) the skyscraper builder had to go to court because the Citibank’s bond was rescinded.

There was a stunned silence after Bella finished with these revelations. After a while, Bella got up and left. After another while, Marion went up and knocked on Bella’s door.

“They hate me,” Bella said.

“No, no. They admire your frankness. At least I do. They just don’t know you yet.”

Bella sat down on the sofa across from Marion and thought for a long moment.

“Could it be this?” she said, lifting her head. “Could it be a case of too much too soon?”

“That sounds right.”

“So what do I do now?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. You’re going to get along just fine!”


Tessie or Tina

This woman spoke at a Hallmark meeting, where new residents familiarize others with their backgrounds. She told it to me inmore detail when I met her about year later.

“Did you ever hear of me? I was called Tina de Lesseps, if you can believe it, from a time when the big studios were beginning to feel that they didn’t have the culture of the British? Even the small companies like Ealing that made these quiet classy movies like The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps? Alec Guinesss in The Captain’s Paradise and those ingenues with perfect posture and speech like Jean Simmons or Wendy Hiller? I met Jean Simmons once. A simple person, very low-key and friendly. No airs about her. Real class.

“I wasn’t in musicals, although I could sing and dance. Not great, but I got by. I was in good-neighbor scenes in tragicomedies, meaning it looks dark and hopeless for our heroine for two hours—worry, worry!, the audience is knitting its brow! But then—surprise, surprise! There’s a happy ending.  ‘Oh, honey, you don’t want to do that!’ in a soothing voice to a woman who’s   planning to run away with her kid’s music teacher, and of course she does, but then she comes sneaking back at the eleventh hour.  Or,  ‘Dorothy dear, my muffins are just coming out of the oven. How about some tea?’ All guilty and dutiful, but don’t forget—Hollywood studios! I’m a girl from a small town with no education, but I learned what the word “decorous” meant at MGM. Sammy Feld used to shout it in every scene. They were all a little paranoid about the Code. Well, of course they would be. Movies were their bread and butter, and they had the Hayes Office breathing down their necks. Twin beds for married couples—give me a break! No décolleté, or better, to the nape of the neck only. I saw a director and producer screaming at each other once for two hours over the length of a skirt! They had to call in the costume designer and delayed production some more while we all sweated and waited.

“Well, the movie bubble went bust on me. I wasn’t even forty but I couldn’t get a bit part in a big crowd scene. Then I had a bunch of sales jobs in California, finally working up to Saks where I met my  husband. He came into the shop to buy some lingerie for a lady friend and lingered and lingered.  So that could be a Hollywood story, but it’s true, although the marriage didn’t have a Hollywood  ending I’m sorry to say.

“I moved to New York to start over and live near an aunt who was like a mother to me. She was here at The Hallmark for a few years before she died and left me some money so I could live here, and it’s not a bad place. So now I’ve talked your ear off and I need a cup of coffee. Want to come?”

Shirley Temple

It’s hard to believe it, but Shirley Temple, the darling of our youth, the blonde curly-topped child star who sang and danced for us in our own childhoods, died on February 10, 2014 at the age of 85.

She was born in 1928 and became famous in 1930 when her mother realized that she had a natural flair for singing and dancing.  At the age of three, she worked for an educational film company. Shortly thereafter she was put under contract by Fox, where she made movies like Bright Eyes and Captain January. She sang On The Good Ship Lollipop and she and the song became famous along with her.

She was the leading child star of the era, and in those days of intense segregation in the movies, she sang and danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a black actor, without censor. She was on our minds and in our hearts from the time she was three and a half until about the age of fourteen. She was an inspiration to all little girls, and to their parents as well. The girls wanted to sing and dance and be as adored as Shirley, and the Depression-era parents shelled out money they could ill-afford to send their children to singing and dancing school. A darling little girl became the role model for the way to fulfill the immigrant’s fantasy of the American dream.

I know that was true of my own parents. Even though they were already feeling the pinch of the Depression, they sent me to dancing school when I was six. I proved a dud, but I was only one of thousands of little girls my age sent to some hastily-created singing and dancing school with a secret dream of improving the family fortunes.

But it was not greed or ambition that prompted poor parents all over America to empty their pockets. Shirley Temple was the child you wanted your child to be: modest, sweet-tempered, sociable, talented, beautiful, well-behaved, intelligent and kind. And for a young child, she also seemed unusually sensible. Above all, as one of one of the commentators noted, she had “infectious optimism.” She won an Outstanding Personality Award in 1934 when she was only six!

There was no question that Shirley Temple made a poor, struggling, depression-sad nation feel better about itself, an amazing feat for a toddler aged three and one-half, for that is when the Shirley Temple reign began. Accounting for her universal popularity, President Roosevelt said that she raised the public’s morale during hard times. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple it will be all right,” he said.

Many child stars become disoriented by their early fame and cannot cope in adult life without it. This did not happen to Shirley Temple. From a sturdy child, she became a sturdy woman. Shirley Temple Black had a long happy marriage and became an ambassador for her country. One can truly say of her that she was an ambassador for her country from an early age.