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Memory support program uses ancient science to combat Alzheimer’s and dementia

Yoga/Reiki Master Heather Ferri leads a Kundalini Yoga class at Country Meadows of South Hills. This form of yoga is used to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Maureen Sirianni, memory support coordinator, helps a resident correctly repeat a syllable in a chant. Chanting works by engaging various body meridians.

When residents, co-workers and guests stroll by one of the fitness centers at Country Meadows of South Hills near Pittsburgh, Pa., their curiosity may be piqued by strange sounds emanating from inside.

Residents are practicing Kirtan Kriya, a form of Kundalini Yoga that combines chanting with breathing and stretching exercises to achieve a beneficial bio-chemical transformation in the brain.

According to Heather Ferri, Yoga/Reiki Master, it means “the awakening of the potential of a human being. It’s the complexity of science that cleans the organs, balances your energies, and opens the channels so that you are your greatest potential.”

Country Meadows co-workers are using this ancient practice as another tool in their arsenal to fight the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Maureen Sirianni, memory support coordinator-Country Meadows, tries everything she can to help residents in the Connections Club maintain or improve their cognitive function. “I needed [Heather] to work with residents that have anxiety, are recovering from a stroke; I put a lot of fragile people in her hands and I’ve seen residents walk out of this room with a better gait then when they walked in, increased vocabulary, and a peer support among residents.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, the practice holds tremendous potential to bolster the effects of strategies used to slow or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. A decade of clinical research has shown that practicing this form of yoga for 12 minutes a day can improve cognition and activate parts of the brain that are central to memory.

The Foundation also believes it may hold the potential to reverse memory loss and has conducted years of research with partners including UCLA, University of Pennsylvania and University of California.
According to Ferri, the science of Kundalini Yoga offers extensive breath work and medical meditations to develop a good brain. The respiratory control center is located in the lower brain stem and by doing conscious breath work, persons can alter the brain and change their state of being.

“When putting these sounds together, they create vibrations by the way the tongue is placed; it creates haling within different mechanisms,” explains Ferri. “So if my tongue goes to the roof of my mouth, it hits the liver meridian which goes up to the brain. You have 84 meridians in your mouth so when you think of the power of word and vibration, there is a lot of science behind chanting.”

Sirianni connected with Ferri when she worked with a resident privately and left behind information about yoga and the research supporting its use with people with Alzheimer’s disease. The information piqued Sirianni's interest. “It cannot hurt to try everything and anything. Sometimes you have to jump out of the airplane and hope the parachute opens,” she says. Residents enjoy twice weekly classes and participate fully, regardless of their ability level. “What has shocked me is how hard [the residents] work, how willing they are…I call them my warriors,” says Ferri as she chokes back tears. “I feel more appreciated by them; they have changed me and that’s why I want to work more and more with seniors.” She adds that she admires Country Meadows for trying new tools to help residents with cognitive impairments. Sirianni agrees. “The Leader family are pioneers. Everything they touch they take to the next level.”

In addition to trying new techniques, Country Meadows’ overall approach to memory support is unique. While most retirement communities offer memory support in secured neighborhoods, Country Meadows also has an early stage program called Connections Club. The Club meets daily to go over the day’s events, build camaraderie among members and provide opportunities to alleviate frustration and anxiety that accompany early stage memory loss. The Club helps its members stay in a traditional unsecured personal care setting.

According to Sirianni, "Connections Club is a cognitive, brain stimulation program that I like to disguise as a social program; a big gang of friends. We don’t see age or dementia. We do recognize the challenges but we focus on the friendships to get through the rough spots. Age is not a number but how you feel. Dementia does not define them."

For residents who require a high level of memory support services, the Connections Neighborhood offers a secure environment while continuing to offer opportunities for entertainment, outings, intergenerational activities and much more.
Residents in both Connections Club and the Connections Neighborhood participate in the weekly yoga class. Sirianni marvels at seeing improvements in residents of both levels when they come to class. “It’s one of those moments when you see they’ve taken that next step; the brain is saying ‘yes, I’m still in here,’ the personality is saying ‘yes, I’m worth fighting for.’ You see them fighting for themselves and it works. A feeling comes over me that doesn’t have a word.”
As the residents move during the class, one can see a dramatic change in their demeanor from when they began to when they finish.

As a resident leaves the class she says, “I like everything about [yoga]. I haven’t been able to be here for a while and I missed it. It makes me feel better and we’re happy—see how happy we are now!”
Other campus residents have noticed the positive effect yoga has on its participants. “One of my favorite things is when a resident in Independent Living will look at us and ask, ‘Hey, Maureen, where are you guys going now?’ They want to know and when I say ‘The Connections Club is meeting,’ they say ‘oh, I can’t join.’ The residents enjoy this kind of special members-only club feeling, it stirs that positive outcome in all of them,” she notes as she reflects on her relationships with the close-knit group. “This is more than a job; it becomes part of who you are. I chuckle when I realize that some of my closest friends are in their 80s!”

Submitted by Country Meadows Retirement Communities
By Kelly S. Kuntz-Director of Communications

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