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Memory Club Engages Minds

Three mornings a week, a small group of older adults meets at a suburban Milwaukee cafeteria. But this is no ordinary coffee klatch. Members of the Early Bird Club are all people in the early stages of memory loss. Over hot coffee and fresh pastries, Club members share stories, laughs and a mix of challenging activities designed to stimulate the mind.

The Early Bird Club is an outreach project of Wauwatosa-based Lutheran Home. The nonprofit skilled-nursing and senior living provider has received two Helen Bader Foundation grants totaling $18,000 to start the club and outline its best practices. So far, more than 60 older adults have benefited from the program.

The Early Bird Club’s activities include math, word puzzles, and storytelling. A facilitator makes sure the activities are fun and user-friendly. For example, club members work together on The Daily Chronicle, a mock newspaper. The group “reports” on historic events that took place on the date of their meeting. Though recent news may be a challenge for members to retain, major events from earlier in their lives are often very powerful memories.

The Early Bird Club is based on a model pioneered in California called Mind Boosters, though it also draws on successful practices from several other similar programs. In turn, Foundation support will help create and publish an Early Bird curriculum that other professionals may use.

With the help of a two-year, $75,000 foundation grant to the UWM Foundation, Inc., researcher and director of the Parkinson Research Institute at Milwaukee’s Aurora Sinai Medical Center, Thomas Fritsch, Ph.D. is studying whether the program has long-term benefits for adults facing memory loss.

Fritsch, who has studied brain health in older adults for more than 15 years, evaluated participants as they entered the program, and then compared their functioning at six and twelve months later. Though some participants didn’t seem to experience much of a benefit, most did. The majority of Early Bird Club members were able to maintain their cognitive skills and enjoyed the emotional comfort that came with being a member of the group.