Inspired Woman Magazine

Fitness, Music, and Essential Oils: Caring for the Dying Brain

Stan and Jean Buschta in Functional Fitness class
Stan and Jean Buschta in Functional Fitness class

By Marci Narum   | Photography: Photos by Jacy

After 72 years of marriage and more than 40 years in the community ofCenter, North Dakota, Jean and Stanley Buschta are spending their golden years together in a Bismarck senior living community. Their daughter-in-law, Kristie Buschta, is making sure those are active years.

“They are adjusting really well,” Kristie says. “I made them come exercise today. They didn’t want to but if I’m going to be here, they’re going to do it,” she laughs.

The Buschtas recently moved from Touchmark‘s assisted living neighborhood to one of the retirement community’s new memory care neighborhoods. Kristie joined the couple for a session of chair exercises, occasionally guiding and helping them follow the instructor’s gentle stretching, leg raises, and arm movements.

“I think they did very well,” Kristie says. “Stan gets his left and his right mixed up sometimes but that’s okay. And for being 100 years old I think Jean does remarkably well.”

The chair exercises are part of Functional Fitness, a class led by Heidi Dalusong, Memory Care Life Enrichment/Wellness Coordinator.

“When the residents come to live with us we do a pre-test to see where they’re at with their exercising,” Heidi explains. “We do arm exercises, holding their legs up, and stretching to see how flexible they are. We do this exercise every day for 20 minutes a day. Then, in 16 weeks, we measure them again and we see how much they have grown.”

Heidi says the exercises make a remarkable difference.

“It keeps their legs strong so they can get up and down out of the chair, it keeps their arms flexible so they can dress themselves, and just the daily living activities they do; it helps.”

It’s the kind of help that provides peace of mind for residents and their families who are already struggling with the transition to this stage of life.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops the disease. More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. While medication is often part of the treatment plan for patients, it’s not necessarily the first line of defense for Touchmark.

Wendy Schrag is Touchmark’s vice president of Clinical Services. She tells family members whose loved ones are diagnosed with forms of dementia that behavior changes which accompany the disease are symptoms of a harsh reality: the brain is dying. But she says if residents don’t need medication, they shouldn’t be on behavior medication because there are countless nonpharmacological approaches that can be tried.

“We don’t want residents to be medicated and sleepy,” Wendy says. “We want them to be active, vibrant, and engaged. We want them to be involved in this community and also the external community.

“Knowing how the brain works when it’s healthy and how it starts to compensate for some of the cellular damage and the loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease helps us with the programming.”

That’s why Wendy is always looking for more ways to enhance Touchmark’s Life Enrichment/Wellness program, which includes Functional Fitness and other daily therapies.

“We know people who have dementia can still generate new brain cells. It’s just at a significantly lower rate,” Wendy says. “Even though they move into our memory care neighborhoods, we still do cognitive stimulation activities to help them maintain their current level of functioning.”

Music and Memory

Wendy says the most powerful tool is music.

“We are introduced to music when we are in the womb. Music is so ingrained in us and continues to affect us until we pass away.”

Life Enrichment/Wellness with Music & Memory enables residents to reminisce about their life, family, and stories through songs they know from long ago.

“The brain is divided. The left side controls your ability to speak and the right side controls your ability to sing. A lot of times a person with Alzheimer’s will be able to sing far longer than they will be able to speak,” Wendy says.

The Best Friends™ Approach

Another therapy that doesn’t involve medication is The Best Friends™ Approach.

“It’s just knowing the resident and their life story,” explains Heidi, who is a Best Friends master trainer. “We have a little bio outside each resident’s apartment. It’s just a little summary the family helps us write to tell all the staff about the resident. It gives you something to talk about when you meet the person for the first time. When you know something about them, you can just see their face light up.”

Essential Oils

Touchmark has also found benefits in using essential oils with residents on a daily basis.

“We have aromatherapy going in a diffuser all the time,” Heidi says. “Right now we have Thieves going which helps with your immune system. We use lavender in the evening when there are more behaviors and it helps calm the residents. Before meals, we give everyone a warm, damp washcloth scented with peppermint oil. The peppermint stimulates the appetite, helps with digestion, and makes you alert.”

Meaningful Moments

Wendy says it’s possible for someone with memory impairments to still enjoy a good-quality life when programming and people are available to help stimulate the individual’s brain. She is involved with the Alzheimer’s Association and is always searching for more ways to help individuals compensate for the cellular death of the brain.

She offers some words of comfort for family members:

“It’s okay to be upset by the decline but they can still find joy and pleasure in the life that their loved one is going through right now. It’s a journey. If you can find the things they are still good at, that they still enjoy doing, you can have meaningful moments with your loved one.”

Kristie Buschta is having those moments with Jean and Stanley.

“I’m very, very happy for them and I’m very happy they’re here.”   

To see more pictures by Photos by Jacy, click here.

Inspired Woman Magazine

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