Acts Communities Become Living Labs to Drive Better Brain Health

Acts Retirement-Life Communities is conducting a two-year study in its communities, tracking the changes in residents’ brain health habits as a result of participating in Total Brain Health classes offered across the portfolio. The results of the study may serve as a blueprint for maintaining brain health as seniors age.

The study, conducted by Acts Center for Applied Research (ACAR), is surveying residents before and after the classes on their knowledge of brain health and habits, and is finding significant improvement in their self-reported memory abilities and their belief that they could improve their memory. Participants also  made positive changes to their daily habits to improve their cognitive abilities, ACAR Managing Director William Tamulonis told Senior Housing News.

A ‘living laboratory’

As the third-largest multi-site, nonprofit senior living organization in the U.S., according to the 2018 LeadingAge Ziegler 200, Acts has a total resident enrollment of over 10,000 seniors across 26 communities. This week, West Point, Pennsylvania-based Acts completed its affiliation with Sykesville, Maryland-based nonprofit operator Integrace, bringing the two companies under shared leadership and guidance.

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Brain Health, dementia, Alzheimer's Courtesy of Acts Retirement-Life Communities
An Acts Retirement-Life Communities Total Brain Health class.

With such a large resident population in house, Acts can understake ACAR studies to improve livability and aging in place as part of the provider’s social responsibility mission. ACAR does this by partnering with universities, health care providers, and other nonprofits, Tamulonis told SHN. And many residents are eager to share their experiences in order to “help write the playbook for successful aging.”

“The people in our communities now are among the first generation to have the longevity bonus of 20-30 years, post retirement,” Tamulonis said. “None of us know how to [maintain brain health] well. It hasn’t been done before.”

Acts discovered it needed more engagement on the subject of brain health after conducting an assessment of what was missing in its wellness culture, Acts Corporate Director of Wellness Services Theresa Perry told SHN. After attending a presentation on Total Brain Health at the International Council on Active Aging by its creator, Dr. Cynthia Green, she proposed instituting the classes across Acts’ portfolio.

“Maintaining brain health is a hot topic among people who are aging,” she said.

They see the importance of staying active and staying engaged, as well as the importance to use every part of their brains they possibly can, while staving off the cognition concerns we have as we age.

Acts Retirement-Life Communities Corporate Director of Wellness Services Theresa Perry 

Total Brain Health’s foundation is social-based training. Residents get to choose the classes and toolkits they wish to use, receive hands-on training by an Acts staff member, and collaborate to put that training into regular practice.

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One technique involves the use of training cards — similar to flash cards — which can be used to help residents remember names, anniversaries, appointments and other important events. Another technique is changing the dietary habits of residents to one heavy in superfoods and antioxidants, which are shown to stimulate brain activity in seniors.

Green’s research found that collaboration brings a tendency to learn the techniques better, and maintain them after the classes have ended. The collaborative nature of the classes also brings a social component that would be lacking if a resident was trying to engage in healthier habits alone, or on a computer.

“It works out lovely because they’re constantly communicating and engaged,” Perry said.

Tracking progress

Since most of the Total Brain Health classes deal with awareness and practicing better brain health, ACAR assesses the cognitive abilities of residents before classes begin, and has them do self-assessments of their memory and brain functions, Tamulonis said.

“We’re not doing brain scans or standardized tests,” he said. “This is more about the awareness and practice of these brain health activities.”

The classes last eight weeks. Residents are re-assessed and self-assess after the classes end, and again two months after completion of the classes. Participants come from across Acts’ continuum of care, as long as they do not have a diagnosis of cognitive decline.

So far, the results are promising.

The 377 residents participating in Total Brain Health classes saw increases in brain health quiz scores, their own self-assessment of efficacy and increases in daily habits, whether it was eating superfoods or practicing brain health activities.

“The pilot was positive on all counts, which is why we decided to increase the size of study,” Tamulonis said.

Brain Health, dementia, Alzheimer's Courtesy of Acts Retirement-Life Communities
Acts Retirement-Life Communities surveyed improvement in residents’ brain at the beginning and end of the Total Brain Health classes.

Acts’ goal is to enroll 1,200 residents in Total Brain Health classes by the end of the study, and for residents who realized improvement in their brain health to take a leading role in engaging other residents to participate. To date, nearly 600 residents have participated in Total Brain Health classes.

“This is very rewarding for residents,” Perry said. “They see the importance of staying active and staying engaged, as well as the importance to use every part of their brains they possibly can, while staving off the cognition concerns we have as we age.”

Improving cognitive health is a major challenge facing the senior living industry, and other providers are taking a leading role in research and implementing new practices as well.

Last September, Sunrise Senior Living launched a 12-month trial of “video for the brain” dementia therapy in some of its UK communities. The approach, if successful, could be integrated into the company’s memory care practices in the United States as well.

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