Before the pandemic, Elizabeth* had the kind of social life some 30-year-olds would envy. The 72-year-old met regularly with friends—some of whom she’s known since primary school—for lunch and dinner. She sang in her church choir, volunteered with Victim Services, attended stretch and yoga classes at her local leisure centre and squeezed in time for weekly art classes at a seniors’ centre.
“I just love trying and learning new things,” says Elizabeth. “It energizes me and makes me feel like I’m still using skills from my former years as a human resource professional. Staying connected to old friends and meeting new ones is something that’s important to me. I just don’t like being cooped up at home. Never have, never will.”
For someone as active as Elizabeth, the pandemic has been particularly difficult. Still, she feels lucky, because she lives with her partner, which makes these long, cold winter days a little less lonely. But she feels for friends who live alone and are isolated from their loved ones. “I make regular phone calls to my friends who live alone,” she says. “I need these conversations as much as they do.”
In addition to staying in regular contact with friends and family, Elizabeth occupies herself with puzzles, crosswords, sudoku and adult colouring books. Her art class has moved online along with her exercise classes and a lecture series she enjoys.
“I get bored watching TV all day. When I’m preoccupied with a 300–500-piece puzzle or a sudoku or word search, it forces me to think—to focus, “says Elizabeth. “It might sound silly to some, but when I’m focused on these tasks, I feel like I have a sense of purpose in that moment.”
What Elizabeth’s doing isn’t silly at all, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School. In fact, she’s doing all the right things. Studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School have shown that engaging in mentally stimulating activities like those done by Elizabeth may protect against new-onset mild cognitive impairment. And, the good news is that we’re never too old to start. Even those of us at genetic risk for cognitive decline benefit from engaging in mentally stimulating activities.
One Mayo Clinic study followed almost 2,000 cognitively normal participants for four years and discovered that the risk of new-onset mild cognitive impairment decreased by 30 per cent with computer use, 28 per cent with craft activities, 23 per cent with social activities and 22 per cent with playing games.
Those numbers represent real potential as the pandemic takes a mental health toll on all Canadians. According to a new study by Morneau Shepell, Canadians’ overall mental health has fallen to its lowest levels since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Seniors, in particular, need to engage in activities that will help them pass through this long, cold winter. It’s what Rose, a 73-year-old who lives alone, is doing.
Like Elizabeth, Rose* is an avid lifelong fan of crossword puzzles, but she’s also part of a WhatsApp group with her seven sisters who live in the Caribbean and the U.S. The sisters start and end each day with WhatsApp voice messages to each other. They share inspirational quotes and videos and because faith is a big part of their lives, they regularly pray with each other and share scriptures. “I wouldn’t be managing through this pandemic without my sisters,” says Rose. “A few years ago, I had no idea how to use a tablet or cellphone properly and now my phone is a lifeline to my family.”
Both Elizabeth and Rose suggest some of the following ways fellow seniors can help keep themselves engaged and healthy despite the long winter days ahead and the unrelenting pressures of the pandemic. And, of course, our Life Enrichment Guide is chockfull of additional ideas for keeping your mind active year-round.
Do puzzles, crosswords, sudoku. These activities compel you to concentrate and focus your mind. Increase the level of difficulty so that you’re always challenging yourself.
Try something new, just for the fun of it: Learn to paint or play a new instrument. Try your hand at a second language. This isn’t about being good at something; it’s about lighting up different parts of your brain by doing something you’ve never done before.
Read more. With pandemic restrictions in place, online books are a great option and you can find many for free.
Organize old family pictures and convert them into photo books. You can even share these with family members as gifts.
Start a diary, one that documents stories from your past. It’s a great way to reflect on the experiences that have shaped you, while also giving your family a better understanding of your life.
The neuroscience community is discovering that the brain is an organ that can get sharper throughout our lives, even as we age. Better brain health is something we can encourage by being active, eating well, relaxing and discovering new things. Learning new things or doing old routines differently is one of the most effective ways to stimulate and even grow new brain cells. And, it’s a guaranteed way to have some fun in these very challenging times.
*Elizabeth and Rose’s names have been changed to respect their privacy preferences.