As executive director of Memory Training Centers of Florida, Liz Bicknell is on a mission of improving memories to improve lives.
The Centers provide a clinical memory treatment program as well as practice management services in skilled nursing facilities, independent living and assisted living facilities to support memory maintenance. They offer everything from evaluation to targeted treatment and therapy for individuals.
In a group setting, staff from Memory Training Centers work with facilities to provide memory care programming as one of several activities on the seniors’ schedule. Liz says, “We’ll work within a daycare center or a senior center where they may go and play Mahjong and have lunch and then have memory training. The patients range from the most high-functioning individual all the way to those that may need 24-hour support.”
Due to the varying degrees of functionality among the population they serve, care is customized to the individual patient. One method that’s universal for everyone they serve, though, is reducing stress. Liz says, “Managing stress and anxiety is interlinked with focused training. If you are stressed, you can’t focus. Focusing is part of the skill of memory.”
Prior to her role at Memory Training Centers of Florida, Liz worked with a non-verbal group of autistic students learning to navigate independence with a language barrier.
Her experience gained working with kids with autism prepared her for success in her memory training career with seniors because both roles required patience and empathy. “It’s been a great fit, and I love the seniors. They are just absolutely a joy to work with,” she says.
Stress-related memory loss
Scientists continue to study what causes memory loss and what treatment and behavior can slow the decline. One possible contributor that needs to still be examined is stress. Studies have found that stress can cause inflammation in the brain, making the brain more susceptible to health problems like dementia. Stress can also lead to depression, a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s and related forms of the disease.
Liz explains why stress can affect memory. She says, “First, there is a physiological stress-response of the hormone cortisol, and it can make you sad, but it can also affect your brain.”
The main use of cortisol is for times of danger when you need to go into fight or flight mode. “The cortisol puts you there in survival mode. That’s why we have it. But if you are going into this stress response during your daily life in the grocery line or when someone cuts you off in traffic, you’re consistently releasing cortisol from just daily events that can’t be controlled. Then you’re wearing down the pathways in your brain that form your memory.”
Some other factors leading to health decline come as the response to this stress. Liz says, “A common reaction is isolation or withdrawal, which are not good for your brain. Eating junk food, watching too much TV, zoning out drinking or smoking are all behaviors from this withdrawal that lead to decreased memory function.”
Liz takes a proactive approach in preventing memory loss. “Manage your stress, eat a healthy diet, exercise, drink water and take care of your brain just as you would your body,” she says.
Treatment can improve memory and behavior
It’s never too late to start taking steps to promote healthy memory. Even once someone experiences memory loss, memory can still be maintained or improved. Liz says, “Your brain is generating new neurons and new pathways. Exercise of those pathways is how you can improve memory because memory is practice. The more you practice the skills of memory the better it becomes.”
There are several different ways to incorporate memory exercises into daily life. Liz says, “There are computer exercises, reading, doing crossword puzzles and other good cognitive exercises that improve memory. Personally, I do exercises like Scrabble or word finds because I’m great with verbal memory and language.”
In her work with residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia, Liz says, “We have seniors of different functioning levels with different deficits and strengths. The exercises have to be customized very specifically.
Liz has seen progress in many of her patients. “One patient we were working with actually was cognitively pretty intact. He had a lot of anxiety, though, about losing his memory and not being able to continue to function independently, which is a big fear a lot of seniors face. So by working with him on deep breathing exercises and by doing maintenance of his cognitive skills, we gave him feedback that things were able to remain intact. He was able to then start socializing more and his anxiety decreased, which was interfering with his functioning.”
Even patients with a higher degree of memory impairment can see improvements with proper care and attention to the details of what each person needs. Liz describes a man in a memory care unit who was refusing to get dressed. “His family would get upset because they would visit him and say, why isn’t he dressed? He would get extremely upset and didn’t have the language skills to be able to communicate what he needed. Then, we discovered that he had his clothes laid out for him by his wife for over 50 years. And when the staff then started laying out his clothes, he got dressed every day independently and he was able to be a more positive member of that community,” Liz says.
3 memory boosting techniques for any age
People of all ages can form good habits to ensure better memory. Besides doing cognitive stimulating exercises, there are several techniques tied to improving memory.
- Manage stress with calming activities One of the most important aspects of improving memory is managing stress levels. According to Liz, “Everybody responds to different techniques, but in general meditation is a wonderful exercise to manage stress along with deep breathing exercises. Finding a way to just calm your mind and release all of the things that are constantly being input every day.”Other stress-relieving activities include taking a walk, looking out the window, listening to music or other relaxation techniques.
- Increase focus and awarenessGetting in the habit of paying attention is crucial to making memories last. Liz says, “The foundation of memory is being able to actually absorb the information that requires focus. Get in the habit of looking around you when you’re walking, really focus on things. Look at the person that you’re talking to and really intentionally listen. That will improve your memory just by improving that skill.”
- Play to intellectual strengthsWhen improving memory, it’s important to look at the process of how memory is formed.Liz says, “Paying attention is the first step on the ladder of forming a memory and then, you have to be able to visually or auditorily process that information.”
Some people are more visual learners while others prefer auditory learning. Liz says, “It’s important to identify your learning preference and then develop the ability to recall quickly. The speed of processing is important and that’s another thing to practice. Only then does it go into your long-term memory once those steps are complete.”
She continues, “These are the strengths that we look at along with your ability to communicate verbally or with language and also your visual-spatial skills. From a memory standpoint, those are the key areas that we separate out and measure, and then try to build.”