Back to School May Help Those with Alzheimer's A Cleveland doctor is trying to prove that volunteering helps people with Alzheimer's and dementia stay mentally and socially alert. At The Intergenerational School, old and young work side by side.
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Back to School May Help Those with Alzheimer's

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Back to School May Help Those with Alzheimer's

Back to School May Help Those with Alzheimer's

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Today in Your Health, keeping aging brains active. Research shows that volunteering keeps older people socially engaged, and that is good for their health. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports on one school in Ohio that's put an innovative twist on volunteering.

Unidentified Boy: Start from the beginning.

Ms. BARBARA KELSEY (Volunteer): That's a good place to start.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Here's the scene you can find in lots of schools all over the country. An older woman - she's a volunteer in the school - helps a seven-year-old boy read.

Unidentified Boy: His walkie-talkie, the...

Ms. KELSEY: Antenna.

Unidentified Boy: ...antenna was dang...

Ms. KELSEY: Dangling.

SHAPIRO: But at this school in Cleveland, many of the volunteers aren't just elderly, they've been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, like the woman reading with the boy on the small couch in the school hallway.

Unidentified Man: But Walter just...

Ms. KELSEY: Ignored him.

Unidentified Man: ...ignored him.

Ms. KELSEY: That's a pretty hard word.

SHAPIRO: Barbara Kelsey is 84. Her red hair is covered with a silk scarf folded like a bandana. She's sitting next to a young woman who picks her up at her assisted living facility and drives her to this school. When there's a break in the reading, I ask Kelsey about her volunteer work.

You're a mentor here?

Ms. KELSEY (Volunteer): No. No. I'm...

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes. Yeah. Her name's Barbara Kelsey.

Ms. KELSEY: I am. Barbara Kelsey.

SHAPIRO: So tell me what you do when you come to the school.

Ms. KELSEY: I don't do anything, really much, except I sit and listen to them. And I, you know, tell them if they, you know, they don't know exactly how to do something, I help them figure it out.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes she remembers, but sometimes she doesn't.

Ms. CATHY WHITEHOUSE (Co-founder, The International School): I think you met Ms. Kelsey?

SHAPIRO: Cathy Whitehouse is the principal and cofounder of this small inner-city charter school. It's called the Intergenerational School. And part of its philosophy is to bring in lots of volunteers of all ages. Cathy Whitehouse says last year Barbara Kelsey volunteered more than anyone.

Ms. WHITEHOUSE: She was the volunteer who was given the Volunteer of the Year award for the most hours at the school last year and turned to her caregiver at the luncheon and said why am I getting this. And the young woman said to her, because you come here and read with the children. And she said, I do?

SHAPIRO: Whitehouse says it doesn't matter, because Barbara Kelsey is good at what she does.

Ms. WHITEHOUSE: When you see her sitting with a child and reading, she's able to interact with that child in the moment. She's able to read. I firmly believe that she enjoys the time that she spends here. And if she doesn't remember it five minutes later, it doesn't matter. It's just been great to have her.

SHAPIRO: A person with dementia may no longer be able to read and comprehend an adult book, but Whitehouse realized they can still read a kid's book. Cathy Whitehouse started this school eight years ago with her husband Peter. He's a geriatric neurologist.

Dr. PETER WHITEHOUSE (Co-founder, The Intergenerational School): I think some people who when they get the label Alzheimer's disease feel shame, and they themselves withdraw themselves from society.

SHAPIRO: So Dr. Whitehouse tells his patients with cognitive disabilities to stay socially active, to keep going to the Cleveland orchestra if they like music, or to volunteer at a school like this one.

Unidentified Child: I found out that Mrs. Hardesty was dating three people.

SHAPIRO: The volunteers in this room come once a week from a nearby retirement community. Many have mild but some have advanced dementia. Two volunteers live on a locked dementia unit. The assignment today is for the students who are teens and preteens to ask the older volunteers about lessons in wisdom they can pass on from their life experiences.

Unidentified Child: But she finally picked her husband, because she said they fell in love with each other. And when they tied the knot he pulled over to the side of the road and said I think it's time we just get married. And then she OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: For older with no dementia research suggests that regular volunteer work increases physical strength and wards off depression and isolation. Volunteers report more cognitive activity. Now Peter Whitehouse is trying to prove that volunteering has health benefits for people with Alzheimer's and dementia too.

Dr. WHITEHOUSE: We presume, although we're doing the research to try to demonstrate it, that engagement is not only as good but perhaps better and more necessary for older people who have what I call aging-associated cognitive challenges.

SHAPIRO: He's working with graduate student Daniel George. They've written a book called "The Myth of Alzheimer's."

Mr. DANIEL GEORGE (Author): We are looking at whether volunteering at the Intergenerational School improves quality of life. And to do that we're looking at five variables: cognitive functioning, stress, depression, sense of purpose, and sense of usefulness.

SHAPIRO: They tested these volunteers at start of the school year and then at the end. The study is ongoing and too small at just 20 volunteers to settle anything. But they say they're able to see change in their volunteers, like Merrily Hardesty. She's 91. Back in her assisted living unit, Hardesty doesn't use the words Alzheimer's or dementia. She talks instead about the thing she calls her problem, and how when it developed last fall it hit her hard.

Ms. MERRILY HARDESTY: And I thought I might as well quit. I was really down in the dumps about the whole thing. There was a time that I hated to go down to dinner because I just couldn't talk to people. It was awful.

SHAPIRO: Two things lifted her from that despair: a support group of other people dealing with memory loss and her volunteer work at the Cleveland school.

Ms. HARDESTY: And the kids, you know, we always find a lot of things to laugh about - just having kids around has always been very good for me, so it was a good thing.

SHAPIRO: Not everyone is so sure that the experiment at The Intergenerational School can be applied more broadly. Columbia University geriatrician Linda Fried has started a national school volunteer program and researched its health benefits. She thinks it may be impractical to let people with dementia, who need help themselves, volunteer in schools.

Dr. LINDA FRIED (Geriatrician): For cognitively impaired older adults, it can feel chaotic, because little kids are busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRIED: It can get confusing if you have memory problems and problem-solving problems. So you'd have to learn how to design the environment and have the resources to do that.

SHAPIRO: The Intergenerational School is set up specifically to handle volunteers of all ages and abilities. Mary Kelsey appreciates that. She's the daughter of Barbara Kelsey, the woman who was the Volunteer of the Year, but didn't remember all her volunteer work.

Ms. MARY KELSEY: For my mother, helping other people in some way has always been part of how she defines herself.

SHAPIRO: Before Barbara Kelsey was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago, she taught adults how to read. She was a library volunteer who took books to nursing homes and prisons.

Ms. KELSEY: One of the great losses of aging in our culture is that people sort of fall out of the place that they had for themselves, the place that has meaning.

SHAPIRO: So Mary Kelsey tried to restore her mother to a place of meaning. She found the school and she added something else her mother always liked: music. The next day, at Barbara Kelsey's assisted living facility, the piano teacher shows up.

Ms. BARBARA KELSEY: Are you giving me a lesson? Is that what we're doing? Oh, my gosh. I haven't had a lesson for a long time. I've forgotten what to do. Oh, my gosh.

SHAPIRO: She gets music lessons five days a week. The teacher, Lewis Calatares(ph), takes out the sheet music.

Mr. LEWIS CALATARES (Piano teacher): Now this one would be "Ode to Joy." Let's try that once.

Ms. KELSEY: I don't even know that song.

Mr. CALATARES: I'll give you the E.

Ms. KELSEY: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: The teacher plays the first note, and then Barbara Kelsey plays - tentatively at first, and then with more assurance.

(Soundbite of music, "Ode to Joy")

SHAPIRO: Some people see Barbara Kelsey as a woman with Alzheimer's...

Ms. KELSEY: Do you want me to go on?

(Soundbite of music, "Ode to Joy")

SHAPIRO: ...but her daughter says if you tell her mother she's got an illness, Barbara Kelsey simply says I'm fine. Her daughter says it's something her mother can say because she's still active in the world.

Mr. CALATARES: I'm going to play the accompaniment.

(Soundbite of music, "Ode to Joy")

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And a little bit more on memory: Apparently, those it was on the tip of my tongue moments reveal a lot about how the brain stores information. Get that story at the Your Health section of npr.org.

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