Move with Balance Fosters Equilibrium and Cognitive Fitness in Older Age

Aging Today, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview
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Move with Balance Fosters Equilibrium and Cognitive Fitness in Older Age


TheASA-MetLife Foundation MindAlert Award Program annually recognizes innovative mental fitness programs developed by nonprofit organizations. Move With Balance is the 2012 MindAlert Award winner in the Mental Fitness Programs for the General Population of Older Adults program category.

For Karen Peterson of Maui's Giving Back program, life is all about balance. Having moved to the Hawaiian Islands in 1992 after her three children were grown- and after 30 years working as an educational kinesiologist and vision therapist, she was unsure of her next step. As a kinesiologist she taught kids movements that enhance brain function and improve focus, concentration, coordination and academic performance. So when Peterson happened to drop into a local senior center, she ended up demonstrating exercises she had used in her past career. By 1994, she had found new meaning and a settled place in Hawaii, teaching a movement program at the center.

A Move to Combat Ageism, Frailty

As she worked with older adults, Peterson, now 67, realized she was becoming older herself, and didn't appreciate the way "our society doesn't really like seniors." She wanted elders to "feel significant. Wouldn't it be better if they felt more involved in their community?"

Peterson also kept running up against society's negative image of elders- "of an old person who can't walk right." As she says, "the 55 to 105 age group is so varied," and she imagined a program where mobile, younger elders could be more involved in the community by mentoring children in local schools. This was in 2000, and marked the genesis of her nonprofit, Giving Back.

In 2005, the program added the option of active elders, some as old as 85, who would mentor frail elders, dividing people into categories by mobility level, not age. Since Giving Back's inception, Peterson has trained 500 mentors and 1,500 frail elder mentees on Maui.

By 2010, this elder-to-elder program, now named Move With Balance, concentrated on fall prevention and cognitive fitness, using the same integrative movements and activities she had used with children. In her current work, she has developed many more exercises based on kinesiology and vision therapy principles, and geared them specifically to elders.

Forging Neural Pathways, Preventing Falls

Peterson trains volunteer mentors in exercises that "integrate both right and left sides of the brain." Simply stretching the right arm over to touch the left knee engages both sides of the brain, helping with balance and memory. Research has shown that cross-lateral, integrated movements such as these contribute to new cell growth and brain activation. Exercises are designed for relatively mobile elders who can stand, or for those with limited mobility who find it easier to exercise from a sitting position. The mentors are then each paired with a mentee to practice the Move With Balance activities together in a safe atmosphere.

As mentees become skilled at basic movements, Peterson ups the ante, having students complete simple math problems while, say, standing on one leg.

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