Join the club

Can't remember names? Keep forgetting where you put things? Melabev may help.

Don't sit around worrying about losing your memory - join a group that tackles the problem and make sure you take a pro-active approach. That's what Leah Abramowitz and Rakel Berenbaum of Melabev, Community Clubs for Eldercare, advise those encountering memory problems, though MCI (mild cognitive impairment) doesn't necessarily mean you've got a serious problem yet. But just joining a group tackling memory loss - both for minor and more advanced cognitive decline - is half the battle, the pair insist. Founded in 1981 by Abramowitz and Prof. Arnold Rosin, director of geriatric medicine at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital, Melabev staff discovered quickly that "the best thing we can do for people with memory problems is to give them stimulation, to give them a social setting, [where they receive] various therapies that make use of the skills they still have for their self-image, self-esteem, and also get them to use it or lose it," Abramowitz says. "In general, it's a known fact that people gain a great deal by being together with others in the same situation," says Abramowitz, whose organization runs both memory clubs and day-care centers for those with more serious cognitive decline, and most recently also memory workshops for those who just need to sharpen their naturally eroding memory skills. Melabev doctors assess individuals at the Memory Clinic in Shaare Zedek Hospital and often refer patients to one of Melabev's nine centers. Others are referred by caregivers, social workers, family or friends. That assessment determines which program one attends, with each offering assistance with declining memory skills. Some people are found to have reversible dementia, caused by a vitamin deficiency or other causes that can be treated right away. Those just feeling their steel trap is getting a bit rusty can get practical tips in memory workshops on problems like remembering names, said Berenbaum. "Nowadays, most people don't need to use their brains or memory. All their phone numbers are in their cellphone; they have a GPS so they don't have to remember directions. So of course we all complain about our memories, because we're not using them," she notes. Just legitimizing their memory loss helps, she says, but to really succeed demands "mind over memory. If you want to improve your memory, you really have to work at it. The brain wants to be lazy, and we have to train it not to be and to challenge it in whatever ways we can." Don't be embarrassed by forgetting, especially names, but there are ways to overcome this. "First of all, pay attention," she advises. "There's so much going on around us sometimes when people introduce themselves you don't really catch their name. So use that name the first time someone introduces it. Write it down." Abramowitz suggests creating a visual link - if you meet someone named Iris, "remind yourself of the flower," or connect the letters in the name to something else. But there's a reason Berenbaum calls it "Mind over Memory" - "you have to put your mind to it," she says. Reducing one's stress about memory problems along with proper exercise, diet and drinking enough also helps, Berenbaum explains. Melabev's day-care centers for those with more severe cognitive problems, including Alzheimer's, offer a variety of therapies to tackle the situation, from gardening and pet therapy to new ones focusing on both prayer and spiritual counseling. "People daven all the time and don't think it's anything special. But for older people who can still daven, because they retain it from long-term memory, it's embedded. For them, it's an accomplishment," says Abramowitz. There's something about "the spirituality and the reverence of it that attracts even people whose memory might be gone, but their emotions are still there." THE MEMORY CLUB participants review newspaper articles, do word games or talk about their life stories. "These stimulating discussions or word games are very helpful." A special computer program called Savyon is also used at the Melabev's day care centers and memory clubs, designed especially for this population. It offers four different sets of exercises involving math, language, shapes and a memory game. Since those with more advanced cognitive decline often have problems initiating activities, participants work with a "coach." People with Alzheimer's often have most of their choices taken away from them, so just being able to choose which computer exercise they will do is beneficial, says Berenbaum, "This builds up their self-esteem, which is also good for their memory," she adds. Participants match words flashed on the screen to a list of other words presented alongside it ("banana" to "fruit salad," for example). Basic math questions like division and subtraction are part of the math section, while in the memory game, participants have to remember the number flashed on the screen, then two numbers, three, etc. A mistaken choice simply draws the response "try again." Working on the computer with an empathetic person also sometimes provides unexpected side benefits, Abramowitz explains. "We've had people who wanted their life history recorded on the computer, or some episode from their lives, which is a completely different aspect, but very therapeutic as well," she says. One man recently regaled his therapist with the story of his favorite red car, and how the girls loved to ride in it. His "coach" printed it out for him, and he proudly shared it with his family over the Shabbat table. "My mother was a different person when she started coming here," said Sandy Jacobs of Beit Shemesh. "There's such a big change in her." Not everyone can make it to the Melabev centers for physical or other reasons, so home visits are also part of the program, which also help the individual's family cope with the situation. A doctor and nurse can be sent, an occupational therapist along with activity workers who play chess with them or study the weekly Torah portion for an hour or two. There are also support groups for families available at the centers. "We think we are doing a great service, the families tell us this," says Abramowitz. "It's very distressing to live with people with advanced dementia... very hard to see the decline. So for these people and their families, we're surely a godsend." Whatever path one chooses, beating memory loss, however severe, is best done with friends. "When people are on their own, they're coping with this terrible situation in old age when they have less strength to begin with and they're scared to death," says Abramowitz. "Here they come to a setting where it's normative, where everyone's in the same boat, and it gives them a great feeling of belonging." For other tricks and ideas for improving memory and memory exercises one can do at home, try the following Web sites: • • • • •,9171,503060220-1159337,00.html • • • - Judy Siegel-Itzkovich