Did you know that your brain repairs itself, and generates *new* neural pathways in response to learning how to do things things you’ve not done before?
This is true for everyone, young and old, memory problems, or not. Each time your brain has an opportunity to work on something new, something you’ve not experienced before, it becomes stronger and better.
My brain was atrophying, or shrinking in size, partly due to old age, and also as a response to whatever was causing my dementia. I started losing the ability to remember things, to do things I had always been able to do before, and to retain new information.
People around me stopped asking my opinion, stopped being concerned with what I wanted. It got to the point where my decisions were made by others as I became more and more incompetent to do so on my own. I did not need to think or reason anymore because everyone was doing that for me.
As a result, I stopped thinking about anything beyond being hungry, whether or not I was in pain, or if I was lonely. Just like a baby.
I stopped learning new things, and my brain responded by phasing out pathways between cells that were needed to think and function. The lights were going out in my head.
When I moved to the last memory care facility, things started to change. My brain was coming into contact with new experiences that caused it to work a little. Not only did my brain begin to form new pathways, but some old broken pathways were being repaired.
I quickly learned where the action was – where others were congregated. The TV room and the large hall outside the dining area were hotspots for social interaction. The fireplace area was less populated, but very peaceful and pretty. The conversation area was also more quiet, but a good place to sit and people-watch as staff and residents strolled by. The theatre room was a mega gathering area on game nights, and rich with stimulating sights and sounds.
Depending on my mood and social desires, I figured out where to go. And I knew how to get there. And that was a significant accomplishment for me, as before going to this facility, I pretty much sat and vegetated in one spot.
And when in my wheelchair, I didn’t move unless someone was pushing me. There was no need to figure out how to make it move because there was always someone to push me around. But I learned real fast how to get myself around at the memory care facility when I was left in my room, alone, one day. I used my feet to walk my wheelchair along, and before I knew it, I was out in the hallway, demanding to be asked, and not told. I still got pushed around, a lot, but at least I could go myself if I chose to.
This video was the very first time I figured out how to make myself go, without help.
The video below is a continuation of the one above. I opened the door to the hall, and started speaking up to get my needs met.
This learning experience, alone, was causing my neurons to fire, which started to bring back my curiosity for new things. I learned which area Janet arrived at, and that it was near dinner time, after she finished her workday. I began to remember that, and usually positioned myself in that area to wait for her. New connections were forming to help me remember things.
They put my name on my door, along with my room number. There was also a shadow box that contained a few of my recognizable trinkets on the wall beside my door. So I learned how to find my room.
The activities room is where we played Bingo, and made crafts, and other games. New things I hadn’t done before – except Bingo. But because I had lost so many neural connections, I had forgotten how to play Bingo. However, because my brain was now successfully building and repairing pathways, I was eventually able to recall how Bingo works, and did very well at it.
In the photo below, I had just finished making a Christmas tree ornament in craft class. The expression on my face as I seriously studied my new creation illustrates my neural pathway formation at work.
I was becoming more conversational, and less agitated. I was developing friendships with other residents and staff – and remembered their names! I became interested in the news, again, and was able again to discuss it.
In short, my brain was beginning to function better. My life became happier. And I calmed down a whole lot. These were simple things for most people to learn. But very significant to me.
It doesn’t take a lot to get your brain to start firing again. But the key is to learn new things. Simply working crossword puzzles does not work because that’s a task your brain already knows how to do. The activity or experience has to be new – something you haven’t done before, or something you forgot how to do. The latter rebuilds broken pathways, and the totally new experience creates fresh pathways.
So whether you want to maintain your brain, or rebuild it, do and learn new things.