Health and Wellness

Meditation & Seniors

Our goal in this blog is to shine a light on ways to help you live your best life. As we’ve discussed on more than one occasion, a wealth of research offers new insight into how we can counter our brain’s natural decrease in function as we age. From knitting and photography to painting and dancing, scientific studies are showing us the importance of keeping our minds active and in a constant learning mode.

Today, however, we’re going to consider the importance of also teaching our minds to do nothing. This practice, known as meditation, has shown to pack a big punch when it comes to improving the mind as well as the body.

When practiced on a regular basis, meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce depression and anxiety, and boost the immune system.

The art of breathing

An article in Senior Citizen Journal explores the results of a 2013 study by the University of California Los Angeles on the health benefits of meditation. At the core of meditation is taking deep breaths and staying focused on your breathing to the exclusion of all distractions.

Deep breathing increases the amount of oxygen reaching organs, which in turn has a calming effect, reducing anxiety and depression. Increased oxygen in the bloodstream also boosts the body’s immunity and increases the amount of oxygen in the brain, which reduces fatigue.

Which meditation is right for you?

While physical exercise is good for your health, the specific benefit is determined by the exercise you choose, be it Yoga, tennis or weight lifting. The same is true of meditation, says the Transcendental Meditation website, which identifies three main types of “meditation brain pattern.” Understanding the brain benefits will guide you in selecting the meditation that is right for you.

  • Focused attention. Concentrating on an object or a concept, such as kindness, is a form of meditation that stimulates activity in areas of the brain responsible for processing sensory information, emotions and attention.
  • Open monitoring. With mindfulness meditation and some forms of Zen, the practitioner is observing reality without judging. This contemplative meditation is responsible for a relaxed state of mind.
  • Automatic self-transcendence. This form of meditation turns on the whole brain and allows a sensation of mental limitlessness. Activity decreases in the area of the brain responsible for sensory information while activity increases in areas responsible for high level functioning and reasoning, as well as relaxation and calm.

Getting started

Numerous bodies of research, including ongoing projects by the University of California Los Angeles, show that a small daily investment of time can reap many health benefits. If you’d like to explore meditation, a good place to wade in is UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center website. It offers free self-guided meditation sessions that make it easy to start meditating right away.

By blocking out the busy and demanding world for a few minutes each day, you can enjoy better health. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel better.

Food safety for seniors: best practices for handling, preparing and storing food at home

There seems to be a lot of media stories in recent years about food safety. While many of us think we are up to snuff on best practices in the kitchen, it never hurts to have a refresher course., the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, offers wonderful information and guidelines for minimizing your risk of getting food poisoning. Their website reports that each year food poisoning affects one in six Americans. Twenty-five percent of those sickened represent vulnerable populations: older adults, children and pregnant women.

Older adults are more at risk because our immune system grows weaker as we age. Adding to the immunity factor is the inconsistency of older adults in properly handling food, according to the Food and Drug Administration. To help counter this trend, offers tips specifically geared towards seniors:

  • If you have eye glasses, be sure and wear them when preparing and handling food. This helps ensure you read labels accurately and can identify foods that look spoiled.
  • Turn up the lights.
  • Use a black marker to label perishable food with the purchase date.
  • Save your energy for cleanup by cooking simple dishes and buying pre-chopped, frozen vegetables.
  • Don’t rely on sight and smell to determine if food is safe. Use a food thermometer to make sure meats, poultry and egg dishes are cooked until done. Also check the shelf life of leftovers using the Keep it Cool Chart.
  • Set up a support system of family and friends to help with kitchen tasks when you’re low on energy.
  • Reheat hot dogs, lunch meat, and fermented and dry sausage until steaming hot. These items, while pre-cooked, may become infected during processing and packaging.

Proper food preparation is also essential to ensuring foods are bacteria-free:

  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Do this during and after food prep.
  • Rinse all produce, including the ones with inedible skins, like bananas and oranges. Scrub firm-skin produce, like apples and cucumbers, under running water.
  • Clean the lids of canned food before opening.
  • Clean all surfaces, including counter top, refrigerator and microwave.

How you store food is every bit as critical to food safety as cooking and handling. Here are tips for best practices in that area:

  • Refrigerate food within two hours of cooking or purchasing (or one hour if the temperature is 90+degrees) to slow the growth of bacteria.
  • Store leftovers in covered containers that are 2” deep or less and eat the food within 3-4 days.
  • Use a thermometer to ensure the refrigerator is at or below 40° F and the freezer is at or below zero° F.

If you’d like a food “cheat sheet” that’s easy to consult, you can download the “Is My Food Safe?” app on Google Play and the iPhone App Store. The app is a free service of the Home Food Safety program, a collaborative effort between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods.

Using ‘love language’ to communicate with a person with Alzheimer’s

People with Alzheimer’s have unique needs. And although their memory robs them of the details of their life, it doesn’t take away their ability to feel love.

A Live Strong article offers ideas on how you can show a loved one with Alzheimer’s you care. The article is written by Debbie Barr, who co-authored a book with Gary Chapman and Edward Shaw titled Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: the 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey.

The book is based on the “five love languages” concept introduced by Chapman in a number of published works. According to his concept, each of us has at least one emotional channel. When someone uses that channel to communicate with us, we feel loved.

Love Language Tools

In her Live Strong article, Barr shows us how we can tailor Chapman’s concept to enhance the life of a friend or loved one with Alzheimer’s:

  • Physical Touch: Expressive touch, such as holding hands or stroking the hair, or task-oriented touch, such as assisting with bathing or dressing.
  • Quality Moments: Giving someone your undivided attention because as memory fades, life is experienced only in moments.
  • Gifts: Purchased, found or handmade tangible tokens of love.
  • Words of Affirmation: Compliments or words of kindness and encouragement.
  • Acts of Kindness: Anything done to preserve a person’s dignity or make them feel useful. For example, including a person in a conversation even though he can’t contribute or asking him to “help” by folding towels.

In order to get the most out of the above tools, you will need to identify the primary love language of the person with Alzheimer’s. For help with this, Barr suggests using the diagnostic quizzes provided in her book.

Putting ideas into action

In order to demonstrate how you might adapt the love languages concept, Barr offers suggestions based on a scenario where you are communicating with your grandfather, whose love language is Words of Affirmation.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Brag about him to others while he is present.
  • Tell him you are proud of the things he accomplished in life.
  • If he asks the same question over and over, answer respectfully and patiently, responding each time as if the question were being asked for the first time.
  • Tell him that you have taken care of everything.
  • Tell him he looks handsome, even if he’s wearing the same clothes he wore the day before.

Communicating with a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can be frustrating and often appears to be futile. That’s why Barr’s suggestions are so inspiring. As the late poet Maya Angelou said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Fitness programs for older adults remain popular with fitness professionals worldwide

It came as no surprise to Meth-Wick staff that “programs for older adults” is predicted by fitness professionals worldwide to be one of the year’s top 20 fitness trends. Meth-Wick’s priority is to help each resident live their best life, and this includes providing leading-edge wellness and fitness programs.

In its report on 2017 fitness trends, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) ranked fitness programs for seniors at eleventh place and another aspect of senior wellness, functional fitness, followed on its heels in twelfth place.

Compared to previous ACSM surveys, fitness programs for older adults slipped a bit. It took eighth place in 2016 and 2015. But this trend is likely to stay strong in future top 20 trends as baby boomers transition into retirement.

Trend vs. fad
ACSM has released its fitness trend report every year since 2007. The editors of ACM’s Health & Fitness Journal annually route an electronic survey to health fitness professionals worldwide with the intention of guiding health fitness programming.

In its summary of survey results, ACSM’s President-Elect Walter Thompson writes:

“These annual surveys of health fitness trends in the commercial (usually for-profit companies), clinical (including medical fitness programs), community (not for profit), and corporate divisions of the industry continue to confirm previously identified trends.”

The ACSM survey appears to have merit as a predictor of what’s hot in fitness. Certified, experienced professional trainers and strength training have stayed in top trends since being identified by the survey 11 years ago.

Here’s a list of ACSM’s top 20 fitness trends for 2017. Many may look familiar if you participate in Meth-Wick’s fitness and wellness programs.

  1. Wearable technology. Activity trackers, smart watches, heart monitors, etc.
  2. Body weight training. Using your body for resistance rather than weights.
  3. High intensity interval training. Short bursts of intense exercise followed by short periods of rest.
  4. Educated, certified and experienced fitness professionals.
  5. Strength training. Using weights.
  6. Group training. Exercise classes with five or more participants.
  7. Exercise is medicine. This is a global initiative encouraging doctors to include physical activities in treatment plans.
  8. Yoga
  9. Personal training.
  10. Exercise and weight loss.
  11. Programs for older adults.
  12. Functional fitness. Using strength training to improve one’s ability to perform daily living tasks.
  13. Outdoor activities.
  14. Group personal training. Personal trainer instructs 2-4 clients in the same session, at a discounted rate.
  15. Wellness coaching.
  16. Worksite health promotion.
  17. Smart phone exercise apps.
  18. Outcome measurements.
  19. Circuit training. Exercises completed in succession for optimum benefit.
  20. Flexibility and mobility rollers. Usually made of foam, used to improve circulation or ease muscle discomfort.

You can read complete information on each trend on the ACSM’s website.

If you’d like to learn how Meth-Wick programs help residents exercise body and mind, contact Eryn Cronbaugh, director of wellness and recreation.

Yale Study Finds Book Reading Can Add 2 Years to Your Life


Expanding on last week’s blog, a study by Yale University found that people who read books live an average of 23 months longer than those who don’t.

The findings were based on data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, which repeatedly observed 3,635 subjects over the age of 50 for a 12-year period. Using responses to questions regarding reading habits, Yale researchers divided subjects into three groups:

  • Those who didn’t read books
  • Those who read books up to 3.5 hours each week
  • Those who read books more than 3.5 hours

Researchers examined whether older adults who read (printed) books have an advantage over those who don’t or those who read newspapers and magazines.

What they learned

The results were impressive. During the 12-year Yale study, participants who devoted more than 3.5 hours each week to book reading were 23 percent less likely to die than non-book readers and those who read up to 3.5 hours weekly were 17 percent less likely to die.

The authors noted that subjects who read newspapers and magazines did not gain the “survival advantage” shown by book readers. They noted two possible explanations for book-reading benefits. “First, it promotes ‘deep reading,’” the authors theorized, which encourages the reader to become engrossed in the story and to make connections between what they are reading and the world in which they live. “Second, books can promote empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.”

Although participants did not indicate the genre of books read, Yale researchers concluded that most were fiction based on a National Endowment for the Arts survey that found 87 percent of book readers choose fiction.

Future research

The Yale authors suggest future research to more fully explore the book-reading phenomenon:

  • Does book reading offer additional benefits?
  • Do e-books and audiobooks offer the same advantages as the printed book?
  • Does the genre of the book affect or determine the benefits?

Embrace the book advantage

While results of the Yale study are significant, they also provide motivation for older adults to bulk up on book reading. Citing a study that found older adults watch an average of 4.4 hours of television each day, the authors proposed, “Efforts to redirect leisure time into books could prove to be beneficial in terms of survival for this population.”

So let’s all turn off the television and turn on our brains by reaching for a book.

People Who Read Fiction Novels Enjoy Better Brain Function

Bookworms, take heart. Two studies reveal significant health benefits as a result of reading books. We’ll discuss one study in this blog and tackle the second one next week.

In December 2013, Emory University’s website reported the results of its study on how fiction novels enhance brain function. The study, titled “Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” explored the health benefits of reading fiction over nonfiction.

What they did

The study’s authors wanted to see if reading fiction novels would enhance brain function. Twenty-one students participated in the experiment, which began with a resting state functional MRI (fMRI), performed five consecutive days, to detect areas of brain activity by blood flow. This was followed by a nightly assignment to read 30 pages of the 2003 thriller “Pompeii,” chosen by researchers because of its gripping, page-turning plot. Each morning after a reading assignment, students were given a quiz to ensure they had read the material, followed by an fMRI of their brain. An fMRI was also performed for five straight days after the students finished the book.

What they found

The researchers discovered that reading a novel improves brain connectivity and function. And the benefits do not happen only as the story is being read: brain scans showed the participants’ brains were still engaged the day after, as though the brain was still processing the story.

In order to understand the significance of the findings, you must first understand that the human brain is a densely connected network, with about 70 percent of the brain connected to all other areas. While most areas of the brain areas “know” each other, some areas have greater influence than others. Brain functions take place across various areas rather than a single region of the brain. Because of this, a person’s behavior requires interaction (connections) between multiple brain areas.

Which brings us back to the Emory University study. Gregory Berns, the study’s lead author, explained the importance of their research this way:

“The neural (nervous system) changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the (story’s hero or heroine.) We already knew that good stories (could) put you in the shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

This ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (even those of a fictional character) improves what’s known in psychology as “theory of mind,” or our ability to understand that others have beliefs and desires different from our own. This, in turn, creates empathy for people in the real world. Think about that: relating to a book’s fictional main character can help us (adults as well as children) feel compassion towards people who are different from ourselves. Those who have developed theory of mind are better able to socialize, which is important to the health of everyone, especially older adults.

The take away

The novel’s storytelling engages multiple areas of your brain, helping you to think better and more efficiently. So it’s important to read fiction on a regular basis to reap the rewards.

To help with this endeavor, Meth-Wick’s Book Club hosts interactive discussions between a library volunteer and our residents on a variety of topics. Whether you are a solo reader or one who enjoys a stimulating group discussion, you’ll be pleased to know new books are added monthly to each of our three on-campus libraries.

Older Adults Benefit from Connectivity with Young People

46634489 - teenage granddaughter showing grandmother how to use digital tablet“Connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of a nation.” – Margaret Mead

Over the last several months, we’ve touched on topics that increase health in seniors, whether it be volunteering or learning a new hobby. The Legacy Project describes how important it is for young people and older adults to build connections. Susan V. Bosak, one of the authors, says, “We talk a lot about all the ways we need to help older people. (…) It’s the experience of life in a multigenerational, interdependent, richly complex community that, more than anything else, teaches us how to be human.”

Building a Better Community

Bosak believes that improving and nurturing intergenerational connections can “achieve a better community with a better quality of life for all ages.” We are able to nurture these connections when we understand that there is a back and forth exchange of support happening between all generations:

  • Younger adults support older adults most often when there is a health or physical limitation.
  • Older adults support younger adults through experience, emotional support, and, in some cases, childcare.

Because older adults today are better educated, healthier and more physically able than past generations of older adults, Bosak views them as a “tremendous resource and our greatest teachers (…) They make us feel connected not only to each other, but to something bigger, to the past and to the future, to the flow of life.” There is no limit to the benefits that can come from a connection like that.

Benefits for All Ages

Bosak goes on to show how these connections benefit all ages. She begins with benefits of intergenerational bonds for children:

  • Gives them an idea of where they come from.
  • Develop higher self-esteem.
  • Better emotional and social skills.
  • Makes them feel special knowing that no one else in the world will treat them like their grandparents do.
  • Gives them someone safe to talk to and confide in.
  • Most of all, allows children to become more comfortable with aging.

On the flip side, there are many benefits to older adults who are connected to the young:

  • Gives them a sense of “joyful freedom,” getting all the benefits and joys of parenthood without many of the drawbacks.
  • Gives them a “second chance” at being a parent.
  • Lesser chance of developing depression.
  • Overall better physical health, including lowering their risk of Alzheimer’s.
  • Higher degree of life satisfaction.

Bosak closes her project with a challenge to all of us to make a commitment to these intergenerational connections “so that they become a part of daily life and the social fabric.”

Health Impact of Loneliness is Equal to Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day

Loneliness negatively affects the health of the person experiencing it. This is especially true for older adults.

While loneliness is frequently a result of isolation, this is not always the case. A study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that two-thirds of research participants (60 years and older) who said they were lonely were married or living with a partner. This suggests it is the quality, not the quantity, of relationships that contribute to a person’s wellbeing.

Community is the answer

One of the most interesting presentations on the effects of loneliness was given by Lissa Rankin, MD, during her TED Talk, “Living in Community with Others Creates Our Best Life.” She says social isolation places the nervous system in threat mode, causing the release of hormones that predispose the body to disease.

Rankin says a person who feels alone is much more likely to be predisposed to illnesses that include:

  • Heart disease
  • Infection
  • Anxiety
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Suicide
  • Addiction

While Rankin presents many facts about loneliness and isolation, the most frightening one is probably this: Loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The following ideas can be used by family and friends to help an older adult avoid isolation by staying connected, or to reconnect a senior who is currently isolated or feeling lonely:

  • If the senior is living alone, arrange for a relative or friend to visit them or call once or twice a week. If enough people are involved, the senior’s social calendar will be full!
  • If you or other family members are unable to visit due to distance, make a phone call, send a card, or do both!
  • Encourage those who visit your senior family member to ask questions and listen. This interaction can go far in helping the person feel appreciated and heading off loneliness.
  • Help your loved one rekindle a past interest. Ask what hobbies they used to be involved with and help them rediscover those hobbies. For instance, sign them up for a ballroom dancing class (you can escort them to the class and participate too!) Maybe find a book club or start one! Just use your imagination and make a connection.

Loneliness is a disease; connections and community are the cures. At Meth-Wick, we fight loneliness through our WelTracs program, which was developed to create health and wellness programs that match our resident’s needs and preferences. If you are fighting loneliness or know someone who is, explore the many resources available to seniors in the Cedar Rapids community, including Meth-Wick.

Technology Enhances Health and Safety of Older Adults

“The times they are a-changin’” is the refrain of a popular Bob Dylan song from the 1960s. While we’re pretty sure he wasn’t singing about aging in America, the words are nonetheless spot on. Companies that provide products and services to older adults see transformation ahead. Here are a few projections worth noting.

Daily life made easier

Much has been written recently about the tidal wave of baby boomers reaching retirement age and how it will change senior living and home care. We wrote about it in this blog. Baby boomers, known for diversity and individualism, will not settle for anything less than growing older in an environment that enables them to enjoy life to its fullest.

According to an AARP study, nearly 90 percent of Americans age 65+ want to stay in their current home and community as they age. This widespread desire is giving rise to innovations.

There is no shortage of products designed to simplify daily tasks like dressing, eating, grooming and bathing. From clothing with magnetic buttons to easy-grip knobs, there are many devices to help older adults remain independent in their home.

Seniors going tech

In addition to “task-helper” devices, a growing number of technology products are being developed to monitor senior health conditions and provide in-home safety. A 2013 Pew Research study reported that six in ten older adults go online, up from four in ten in a 2010 survey. This would seem to reflect a growing receptiveness to the digital age, especially among seniors ages 55-75. Given this study is three years old, it is likely safe to assume the number of senior online users has continued to grow.

A huge breakthrough for aging in place has been the growth of medical devices that allow seniors to take readings at home rather than make a trip to the doctor or hospital. These include wrist devices that monitor heart rate, stress and sleep level.

The BeClose remote monitoring system uses sensors placed throughout the home to provide real-time tracking of an individual’s daily activity. A private online dashboard allows a caregiver to determine if an older loved one has gotten out of bed, had breakfast or gone for a walk. This allows a family member to stay in touch without seeming to be intrusive. The system also includes an emergency alert button that the individual can push if they need immediate help.

Another innovative item, the Smart Contact Lens by Google and Novartis, is designed to help people with diabetes. The lenses can read the glucose levels from tears using a tiny sensor and microchip. The user can view the reading using a compatible mobile application.

These tools have the potential to enhance quality of life for older adults and their families. But it’s important these aids do not become a substitute for human assistance. Lack of interaction with others can lead to isolation, an important subject we tackle next month. Just remember, the best approach to making good use of innovative devices is to combine them with the personal touch of in-home visits from a caregiver.

‘Falls are a normal part of aging’ is a myth


The “Falls Prevention” program by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) reminds seniors, and those who love them, that falls can be avoided by taking a proactive approach.

If you are an adult aged 65+ who thinks this topic doesn’t apply to you, it’s time to reconsider. Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.

NCOA provides a wealth of information on falls prevention on its website. One especially eye-opening tip sheet is “Debunking the Myths of Older Adult Falls.” Here is an abbreviated version of the list.

  • Myth 1: Falling happens to other people.
  • Reality: One in three older Americans, about 12 million, fall each year.
  • Myth 2: Falling is a normal part of growing older
  • Reality: Strength and balance exercises, like those provided through Meth-Wick in Motion exercise classes at The Manor, help prevent falls. Having your eyes examined and checking your living environment for safety also decrease the chance of falling.
  • Myth 3: I won’t fall if I limit my activity.
  • Reality: Physical activities, be it making the bed or putting away groceries, help you stay independent longer because you increase strength and range of motion.
  • Myth 4: I can avoid falling as long as I stay home.
  • Reality: Over half of all falls take place in the home. Be sure to safeguard your environment using the checklist provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Myth 5: My muscle strength and flexibility can’t be regained.
  • Reality: Although growing older can reduce muscle, it can be regained, at least in part, through exercise. It’s never too late to start an exercise program. And with Meth-Wick’s senior-friendly exercise classes and equipment, there’s no reason not to flex those mature muscles!

Meth-Wick recognizes the importance of offering falls prevention resources to our residents. In 2011, exercise classes at The Manor, available to all residents, began including movements focused on balance and agility to prevent falls. In August 2014, we launched our “fall initiative,” a proactive approach to this age-related type of injury, with the addition of a Biodex Balance System™ to our recreation and fitness area.

The Biodex is used to evaluate a resident’s risk of falling and based on results, train them to improve balance, increase agility and develop muscle tone. Meth-Wick residents wanting more information on the Biodex can contact Kristin Van Dyke, Meth-Wick’s fitness specialist, at 319-365-9171.

All of us at Meth-Wick Community are committed to helping every resident live their best life. That includes providing the tools and information to prevent falls. We encourage our residents to make good use of these resources and contact us with any questions.