‘The rhythm of life is a powerful beat,’ Sammy Davis Jr used to sing in the seventies.
And, if scientists at Boston University are right, getting that rhythm to the right beat in the brains of older people could restore their short-term working memory to that of 20-year-olds. Our short-term working memory helps us to keep our plates spinning, storing information for around 10 – 15 seconds to allow problem solving, reasoning, planning and decision making, helping us, for example, to keep a telephone number in mind while writing it down.
The theory is that signals from areas of the brain, the prefrontal and temporal cortex, become out of sync as the brain ages. By resynchronising these areas with electrical stimulation, the function of short- term memory is strengthened. In an experiment at Boston University, when researchers fired electrical currents of the same frequency at the areas, older people were able to carry out working memory tasks with an accuracy comparable with people in their 20s.
Forty-two people aged between 60 and 76 received 25 minutes of electrical brain stimulation. They were asked to spot the difference between pictures on a screen both before, and after, and the results compared with 42 people aged between 20 and 29 who had done the same tests. The older people completed the working memory tests ‘roughly’ as well as the younger. The effects of the stimulation lasted for 50 minutes, but researchers think it could last for several hours. Researchers [i] also used brain stimulation designed to desynchronize waves in the younger participants, which caused them to do worse on the memory test.
The technique is called high-definition trans cranial alternating current stimulation, and uses electrodes to target very specific brain regions with a frequency of 8hz and a weak current of 1.6 milliamps. Researchers hope that electrodes will eventually be implanted into hats or headsets which could be administered by doctors or even at home, to give a helpful memory boost when needed.
Lead author Dr Robert Reinhart, of Boston University said, “We are speaking the language of the brain in a manner of speaking. Cells that fire together wire together.
“These findings are important because they not only give us new insights into the basis for working memory decline but show that negative age-related changes are not unchangeable, we can bring back the superior working memory function that you had when you were much younger.’
Commenting on the study, Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Altering and correcting the circuitry of the brain with technology is a new exciting avenue of research for dementia. The work by Reinhardt and Nguyen is important early stage work that may well stimulate fruitful research into effective treatments of age-related decline of human cognitive function.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
After two days in London last week, schlepping along the underground and the miles in between with a heavy overnight bag, I thought I’d done very well. Until I read about 81-year-old Ian Waddell, who’d covered 17 miles and a 5,000 ft ascent in the South Wales Three Peaks Challenge, using sticks and crutches because he has osteoarthritis and joint pain. He’s also had hip and knee surgery.
He started out for the first peak at midnight, using sticks and crutches for support, and accompanied by three friends. At daybreak he began to see the size of his challenge. ‘The ground was extremely rocky, there was no foot-path, and then we had to come down the same way,’ he said, and ‘the Sugar Loaf was just a little pointy thing in the distance!’ Afterwards he went home, slept for 14 hours straight and when he woke had a fry-up breakfast.
At the finish, he told his friends, ‘never again’, but they said they’d heard him say that before. The friends completed the challenge in aid of children’s hospice Ty Hafan. You can read about it here – https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/17549988.former-soldier-81-from-abergavenny-toasts-three-peaks-hike-success/
I’ll never complain about the streets of London again.
It’s become a buzz-word in the NHS. People who have it do better in life than those who don’t. So what is it – this ‘resilience’? In physical objects it means having the ability to spring back into shape; and in people ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.’ But it’s more than that.
We learn resilience through experience, in the way that toddlers learn to get up again when they fall down. When life is trying to flatten us and the going is tough, it helps to remember the times that we coped; how we got up again. But now and again we’re so thrown off balance we wonder if we’ll ever be able to bounce back again.
Many studies and many books have been written about resilience, and they’re helpful to a point … but don’t go deep enough. Because there are powerful words in the Scriptures, that speak to your spirit to lift you up, to steady you, to see you through. I’ve seen this with an elderly lady with dementia. She’d reached the stage where she could hardly speak, but her face was aglow as she listened to a visitor saying, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.‘ (Proverbs 3: 5-6)
A preacher and author has said that the key to resilience is applying Romans 8:28. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.’ In all things.
Some of the least ‘tough’ people I know, those older, gentle, quietly-spoken types have tremendous resilience. It’s not tactics, it’s not techniques, it’s not following different customs – it’s trusting God and leaning into His promises.
As you read this more than 6 ½ million people around the country are caring, unpaid, for a family member or friend who is older, disabled or seriously ill, many with dementia. Many have had to give up their jobs and are also struggling financially.
They don’t see themselves as ‘carers’ – they are spouses, parents, sons, daughters or friends, and because of this many don’t look for the vital information and support that could help them. (And with the current state of social care they are likely to find themselves banging on closed door, anyway.)
Family carers can be achingly isolated and lonely. Caring often begins in a small way and becomes more demanding as time goes on. With dementia, in particular, carers can be drawn into a condition known as ‘role entrapment’. The director of a community based work in Birmingham told me of the time they met Alfred, a 79 year old caring for his wife with dementia, who had not been outside his home for two years. An extreme case, perhaps, but there are so many others.
Carers Week is an annual awareness campaign to help them get connected, and for their value to be recognised. The charity, Carers UK, say that the Week is brought to life by individuals, groups and organisations throughout the country holding all sorts of events, from coffee mornings to afternoon teas and whatever other ideas occur to them.
It’s an opportunity for churches to create special events. Carers would surely like the kind of pampering day that was organised some years ago by a church in Wiltshire. People were invited to come for neck and shoulder massage, hand massage and manicures and pedicures, aromatherapy and other treatments.
It could also include inviting carers to a dedicated Sunday Service. A daughter who came to our Pilgrims’ Friend stand at a Christian event one year told us that her mother, who had dementia, had resolutely refused to go to church with her and had been dismissive about the Gospel. Then one week she suddenly changed her mind and said she would accompany her. The daughter said she’d been apprehensive about her mother’s behaviour in church, but was amazed when her mother committed her life to Christ.
Christians are among the kindest, most giving people in the world: in one year in England and Wales their collective work in the community amounted to £3.5 billion, according to the fund-allocating Cinnamon Trust. Many will see Carers’ Week in June as a heaven-sent opportunity.
(As well as their usual platforms, Churches can advertise their special events on line using the interactive map on the Faith in Later Life website.)
More than 54,000 older people died waiting in vain for care in the 700 days following the government’s announcement of a new Care Green Paper. After Chancellor Philip Hammond’s 2017 promise, 54,025 older people died waiting for their care to begin, and 626,701 were refused care outright. In the same period, 7,240 older people exhausted their savings to pay for their care bills, leaving them reliant on the State to fund their ongoing care, with nothing to leave for their families after their death. In addition, 1,263, 844 older people weakened to the point where they could not do one of their daily acts of living, such as wash, or dress, or get into or out of bed, the equivalent of 1,805 people a day. The figures were in a report by age UK[i]
Many experts believe that cuts to funding social care have led to many more ‘unexpected’ deaths among the elderly. Since cuts began in 2010, after 40 years of steady decline, mortality rates in this age group began to rise. The biggest annual rise, the highest in 50 years, was in 2015. Oxford University Professor Danny Dorling, who advises Public Health England on life expectancy said, ‘when we look at 2015 we are not just looking at one bad year. We have seen excessive mortality, especially among women, since 2012. I suspect the largest factor here is cuts to social services – to Meals on Wheels, to visits to the elderly.’[iii]
Tragedies behind closed doors
Behind the figures are human beings struggling to cope. Hundreds of people leave their jobs each week to care for a loved one (Carers UK), [iv] reducing the family income. Families do their best, but the strain on them is enormous.
In January, Human Rights Watch also give examples of people left to struggle, when they published findings showing that ‘Unfair and improper care assessments are stripping England’s older people of their dignity and independence.’ [v]
Keith Mulcahy, In Huddersfield, is an example. He fought for weeks for funding for continuing health care for his seriously ill mother, only for her to die weeks after he succeeded. He says, ‘She couldn’t speak, feed herself or move out out bed. She was doubly incontinent, had pneumonia and had suffered several strokes, and had to be lifted out of bed with a hoist.’ He claims that social workers and others gave false information on forms to deny her eligibility for funding. Mr Mulcahy said, ‘it was clear to me that the false information had been no accident, it is a deliberate, concerted effort by NHS staff to deliberately block any type of healthcare funding.”[i]
A daughter caught between looking after her mother who had broken her hip and her father in law who lived a distance away said, ‘He was a sweet man. He had cancer and was on oxygen and he’d been promised care but died on his own while he was still waiting for it.’ Age UK tells of Jean, 87, living at home with multiple care needs. Social services said she needed three care visits a day and was eligible for funding. However, she’s still waiting for it, months later. The social worker said that care isn’t available at the moment and there aren’t enough carers. Her family is currently looking after her, but this is causing them an enormous strain.
When we give talks to Christians in faith groups or churches it’s clear that many want to help and are befriending the elderly homebound and doing what they can, such as shopping, cooking and cleaning. Befriending an older person makes a huge difference to their wellbeing. But few are trained to help a frail older person out of bed, or help her dress and get to the toilet.
On America’s Statue of Liberty is a plaque that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We, at Pilgrims’ Friend Society, feel like holding up a Liberty-like torch and saying, ‘Give us your frail, your weary, your older people longing for practical and spiritual support!’ We thank God for our supporters, who donate and pray for us, because without them we would not be able to do what we are doing today. But we know the need is greater, and is growing.
Surely, as one of the world’s largest economies, our country could fund its elderly care better than this? Christians are told to expose the things that happen in darkness – Ephesians 5:11. One thing we can all do is write to our MPs, and where we find injustice, do as Mr Mulcahy did, and contact the health journalist in the local press.
Manchester is in the lead when it comes to innovative ideas for older people. It’s strategy is to make life as enjoyable and inclusive for them, and everyone else. It comes up with new ideas and events all the time.
One of its latest ideas is the Chat and Natter Table. Its website says*, ‘A Chatter & Natter table is where customers can sit if they are happy to talk to other customers.
‘We are looking for supermarket cafes, community cafes, large and small cafes to get involved so that just maybe we can make the Chatter & Natter table a part of everyday café culture.
‘A Chatter & Natter table brings people together and everyone is invited! If you’re on your own, in a couple, with a friend, if you’re a carer why not sit there with who you care for, mums and babies, dads and babies, grandparents and babies, young people, older people and anyone in between!
‘When you are deciding where to sit, look for the Chatter & Natter table and sit there! Stay for five minutes while you have your drink or longer. It’s not about making friends, just having good old fashioned human interaction!’
Isn’t that a brilliant idea? It could work all over the world. Owners could advertise ‘a Chat and Natter Table Inside’ and it would draw shoppers, mums, workers popping out for lunch, all sorts of people!
Perhaps you could put the idea out to cafes you know?
Unless you’ve been meditating on a mountain top with no transmission, you’ll know that Wales beat England 21-13 in the Six Nations rugby match last Saturday. Max Boyce probably wrote another song to commemorate it. In the crowd was an 82 year old who’d never been to a rugby match before. (Perhaps she moved into Wales late in life.) She said that meeting the team was wonderful, adding, ‘It will be hard to top that one. I’m 82 years of age and to have something like that happen to you at my age is amazing.’
But why should that be? Amazing happens at all ages. In my book, ‘What’s Age Got To Do With It?’ you can read about men and women in their nineties and more who are still doing ‘amazing’. Like 100-year old Bo Gilbert, chosen by a leading London designer for a Harvey Nichols’ advertisement for the 100th issue of Vogue Magazine. And the 101 year old Douglas Higgins, who wrote a book at the age of 100 to tell his story to others so that they too, might discover Jesus: and the 101 year old Doris Long, who abseiled down the Spinnaker Tower in Plymouth to raise funds for charity. When interviewed, she said she hoped the wind would be less buffeting next year. There are others too – and they are not exceptions. It’s just that we don’t hear about them, mainly, perhaps, because stories about older people don’t sell newspapers. On the other hand, every week on my social media pages others drop in at least two stories of ‘amazing’ older people.
Why is this important? Because we shape our lives on our expectations. Proverbs 4:23 says it well, ‘Above everything else, guard your heart; for it is the source of life’s consequences.’ In psalm 139 King David writes, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’
Nothing is impossible with God. I’m looking forward to ‘amazings’ until the day I arrive Home with Him, and then even more!
I’ve learnt something today that has blessed me hugely, so I thought I’d pass it on to bless you too. It’s a story of God’s grace and wonderful ways, and how He can transform a ‘bad place’ of despair into a place of blessing. You’ll remember Sarah and Hagar and their sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and how Hagar was sent away by Abraham because Ishmael mocked Isaac at the boy’s weaning ceremony (Genesis 21). Not just light teasing; the word indicates intense derision.
You’d think that Hagar would have prevented him because years earlier she’d run away after being badly treated by Sarah after mocking her childlessness (Genesis 16). A rather nasty thing to do, you might think, laughing at someone who longs for a child but can’t conceive. (The pain of childlessness is often still felt in old age.) Hagar suffered because of her own pride and insolence. But God had His eye on her and found her sitting near a spring in the desert. He told her to go back and submit to her mistress, and because of that, the well in that place is called ‘Beer Lahai Roi’ meaning ‘the One who lives and Who sees me.’
The wonderful twist in the saga is that years later, Beer Lahai Roi was the place where the grown up Isaac was meditating and where his new bride was brought to him (Genesis 24: 62-62). And it was there that he chose to live (Genesis 25:11), bringing community and life to the place where ‘God sees’. God kept His promise to Hagar (Genesis 16), and turned what had been a tragic place into a blessing.
People sometimes say that they are ‘in a bad place,’ when they are experiencing depression, or sorrow, or grief. Bereavement is an especially ‘bad place’. But Hagar’s story brings hope, because it shows that there is ‘One Who Sees’ and who will, in time. turn it into a place of grace and communion.
(With thanks for the insight to Roger Hitchings, an inspirational Bible Scholar who will be speaking at our AGM in Leicester on May 11.)
We heard from a couple who were having a tough time trying to support an elderly aunt with dementia. She enjoyed living alone in her flat and couldn’t see that there was anything wrong even when she cooked food for so long in the microwave it caught fire and set off the building alarms. Her niece and her husband were doing everything they could to keep her safe. Neighbours, and members of the local church had formed an ‘Aunt Maud watch’ and on occasion brought her back home when they found her in town. Her family installed sensors in her flat so they could tell if she’d fallen or if she’d gone out and left the door open. Then Maud discovered the system’s main plug and switched it off.
But if the technology had been as helpful as that promised by scientists in Washington who are working on one especially for people with dementia, Maud may have been pleased to keep it. At Washington State University (WSU) they are developing a Robot Activity Support System (RAS) that includes sensors and a robot. The sensors are embedded around the home to track where the person is and detect whether he (or she) needs help with daily tasks. If Maud needed help the robot would go to her and give instructions on how to carry out simple tasks or lead her to important things such as medication or food. Future robots may even cook the food.
The development is in its early stages, but this and the Japanese ‘Pepper’ robot being trialed in care homes in the UK look promising. So far the American system has been tested by students, and the next step is to try it with elderly users.
Hopefully, in the next 10 or 15 years the technology will be so advanced that domestic robots will be available for everyone. Amazon’s Alexa is being installed in homes as part of domiciliary care in some parts of England, and in America, the market for technical products for aging baby boomers is expected to rise to $20 billion by 2020.
I quite like the idea of a robot who can vacuum the stairs, put the rubbish out and make cups of tea. If I should ever have one, I would call it Herbert, and would train it to do all sorts of things.
Sadly, Herbert will come too late for Maud, which is a pity because it’s becoming harder and harder to recruit people into care work. Perhaps future Herberts could help by taking the strain and the bulk of the care work, freeing carers to do what they like best – spending quality time helping people. Dr Fiona Carragher, of the Alzheimer’s Society said she welcomed new ideas, but warned against cutting human interaction. She said that there is evidence to suggest that robots can boost social engagement, improve mood and reduce agitation for some people with dementia, but nothing ‘can or should replace human and social interaction’. It’s good to see how many Christians are stepping into the gap as volunteers. For those who are interested, my colleagues and I run training workshops.
Christian providers of respite, residential, nursing and dementia care. Also retirement apartments for assisted living and for extra care housing, and fully equipped houses for missionaries' home leave.
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