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Fitness club gives members a brain workout

Fitness club gives members a brain workout

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Fitness club gives members a brain workout

By Tita Parham | March 16, 2009 {0984}

WINTER PARK, Fla. — They’d been challenged with all sorts of activities all morning, so when Peggy Bargmann asked the group of 10 adults sitting around tables before her to read a story by looking at it upside down, they thought she was crazy and said so.

Peggy Bargmann (left) helps club member Barbara Solem with an exercise. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1118.

“Who would ask you to do that?” one member asked.

Bargmann would and she did, along with many other requests of the group that Friday. Everything the registered, gerontological nurse asked them to do had a purpose — to stimulate and exercise their brains.

Every Tuesday and Friday a group of 10 to 12 adults meets at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park for the Brain Fitness Club. It’s a collaborative program that includes the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) communicative sciences and disorders masters program, Bargmann as the club’s program director, and the church, which provides space free of charge and some monetary support through its foundation.

Funding also comes from the Markoly and Brookdale foundations, a local family and national foundation, respectively, and Heart of Florida United Way through designated giving. The church’s members also have opportunities to give to the program, and program participants pay a fee, based on a sliding scale.

The club’s members do get some physical exercise through the program, but most of their time is spent mentally exerting themselves. All have some form of early memory loss, whether Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia from multiple strokes or unspecified dementia, including mild cognitive impairment.

A place for the piano man

The other members call Tom Gerrity their piano man, and it all started with him.

Gerrity was diagnosed about nine and half years ago at age 55 with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, although he’d been having problems with his memory for two years before that.

Tom Gerrity does an impression of comedian Jackie Mason for his wife, Nancy, before the day’s Brain Fitness Club activities begin. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1119.

The former engineer, who loves to play the piano and do impressions of Jackie Mason, a comedian from New York famous for his jokes about Jews, could no longer work, but he was able to be by himself during the day without any difficulties. There was only one problem — he was “terribly bored” and “felt the clock was ticking,” said his wife, Nancy, who is about 15 years younger than Tom.

Tom played the piano at a local assisted living facility and adult day care, but that didn’t provide enough activity or the structured program Nancy says Tom needed.

There was “a support group and adult day care, but nothing in between,” Nancy said, so she decided to start a program on her own and began the process in November 2005.

Nancy asked Bargmann, whom she’d known from an Alzheimer’s support group Bargmann facilitated, to coordinate the program. Bargmann and Dr. Janet Whiteside, who works as a clinical educator at UCF’s Communications Disorders Clinic, had tried to start a similar program, but were not successful, so both were eager to help.

“When this program came about, I said ‘Wow, I’m on board,’ ” Whiteside said.

Nancy met Jeanne Bushong, wife of the Rev. Bob Bushong, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, at a caretaker lecture series at the Winter Park Public Library. As a result of that meeting the church agreed to house the program.

With all the pieces finally falling into place, the Brain Fitness Club was born in August 2007.

“I would say I’m the heart behind it, and Peggy is the brains,” Nancy said.

The club’s program offers physical exercise, socialization, brain building, speech therapy and fellowship, Nancy said. She, Bargmann and Whiteside all say there are no other programs like it locally.

None of the club’s participants are members of the church. Nancy says awareness of the program has occurred by word of mouth and through referrals from Alzheimer’s groups.

A clinician takes Bob Tomcavage through a series of exercises. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1120.

“It’s just a dream come true … to see how folks are benefiting and getting the stimulation, where they would just be sitting at home,” Nancy said. “It’s not a depressing place to be. On the whole, it’s a pretty upbeat group.”

Win-win for members, students

“You don’t find many places like this,” says 78-year-old Bob Tomcavage.

In addition to calling Bargmann a “golden angel,” the self-described clotheshorse and religious Catholic originally from Shenandoah, Penn., says he looks forward to his time at the club and being with the other members.

“When you come to a place like this you have a different attitude about being sick or are you going to get well,” he said. “I come here, and I am different. … It’s like giving you a gift. They work with you, and they talk with you.”

Tomcavage says that work is making a difference. “I can go home and go into the closet and remember what I was in there for,” he says with a laugh.

There’s an individualized plan of care for each member, Whiteside said. The clinicians evaluate the members’ cognitive communicative abilities and design exercises around them, including providing members with a binder of exercises tailored to their interests and abilities.

“It’s a strength-based program,” Whiteside said. “We want to maintain what they still can do.”

Members spend their Tuesdays working on activities that provide cognitive stimulation, like word games and mathematical problems. They also talk about things that may be bothering them related to their dementia and discuss any articles or information Bargmann may have given them the Friday before.

In addition to group activities, Friday’s time is spent with Whiteside and her team of four clinicians and two volunteers — students from the UCF program. A benefit for the clinicians, who are graduate students, is the clinical experience they receive through their work with the members.

Tom Gerrity whistles a tune from the musical “South Pacific” during a cognitive exercise tailored to his love of music. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1121.

“It just seemed like a natural marriage to look at this as one of our service learning (opportunities),” Whiteside said.

Friday morning’s schedule begins with a variety of group cognitive exercises. During one, Bargmann asks the members to think of as many words as possible related to specific categories. When she says the word “hot” members shout out bath, water, sun and Florida. When she asks for things found under the water they say fish, coral, submarine and lobster. When she asks them to list musical instruments they point to Gerrity, their piano man.

During those exercises the clinicians meet individually with members to work on their tailored exercises. Because of his love of and aptitude for music, Gerrity’s clinicians use music as a memory aid, asking him if he recognizes songs from the musicals “South Pacific” and “Music Man.” After the clinicians hum a few bars, he joins in, whistling the tune.

“Everything they do teaches us something,” said 90-year-old Epomonondos “Fred” Tombros. His binder includes exercises that ask him to choose the shortest, longest, heaviest and lightest of three options related to a number of items.

“Our philosophy is challenge without frustration,” Bargmann said. “These exercises are designed to get your brain thinking beyond the obvious to the hidden.”

The clinicians also teach family members and caregivers how to engage the members and get at “that information locked away,” Whiteside said, by knowing how to ask their loved ones questions. The members are then evaluated at the end of the semester — the program runs on semesters to match UCF’s calendar — to see how they’ve progressed.

Dr. Janet Whiteside (center) offers her input during an individual cognitive therapy session. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1122.

Whiteside says there are groups that provide mental stimulation for people with dementia, but the Brain Fitness Club offers a level of therapy not provided elsewhere. She says it’s long-term versus short-term, which is more typical of other programs.

The real difference between the members who participate in the club and people not in a program like it, she says, is that “these people are living with their diagnosis,” as opposed to being oppressed by their disease. She says that’s what makes the club so important.

Seeing a difference

Friday afternoons are devoted to more group activities, like upside down story reading and drawing exercises, and discussion about information Bargmann has shared at a previous session.

On this particular Friday the group talks about the benefits of fish oil on improving memory and studies that indicate moderate exercise delays onset of Alzheimer’s. Bargmann also shares facts about that day in history — Henry Hudson sailing down what was later named the Hudson River in New York in 1609, the Episcopal Church removing the word obey from the bride’s wedding vows in 1922, the marriage of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953.

“We keep it pretty lighthearted,” Bargmann says. “Every once and a while they’ll bring up things that bother them.”

While the members are engaged in the afternoon activities, they hear the strains of music from Gerrity and his piano in another room. Gerrity’s disease has progressed to the point he no longer benefits from the afternoon activities.

Tom Gerrity plays the piano while members of the Brain Fitness Club work on drawing and reading exercises. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1123.

“That’s his thing,” Bargmann says of Gerrity’s piano playing. “That’s when he’s in heaven, playing for us.”

When the discussion is over the group listens to a recording of “Ave Maria,” which was played at the Kennedys’ wedding. Gerrity joins the group and whistles the tune.

Bargmann says it’s hard to exactly measure the members’ improvement; whether the progression of their memory loss — the result of a degenerative disease for many of them — is lessened because of the program. With the declines, she says, she does see improvements and the benefits of remaining social.

“Just this week,” Bargmann says, two of the members “found each other.” She says they realized how much their friendship had grown and means to them.

While picking up his father at the end of the session, Tombros’ son — also named Fred — says he can see how important the program is to his father, retired after 40 years as a glassblower making medical glassware for hospitals and laboratories in Vineland, N.J.

Tombros started attending the club with his wife, and although she is no longer able to attend, he continues participating because, Fred says, “he loves the socialization.”

“It’s a multi-task program, but at the same time, there’s a camaraderie amongst the group members … so they really care about each other,” he said.

Fred Tombros goes through a series of exercises with a clinician. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #09-1124.

Fred, a former assistant high school principal who now works in UCF’s college of education, says the homework is an important part of the program.

“It allows people they’re living with to interact on an intellectual level, too,” he said.

Virginia Aldridge says the socialization aspect of the program is also important to her 61-year-old daughter, Barbara, who had a stroke in 1996 and 2002.

The second stroke “did all the damage,” she said, leaving her with no short-term memory.

Describing her daughter as someone who has always been social, Aldridge says the program has been “really good for her.” “She continues to get more social, more self-confident. More of her vocabulary is coming back,” Aldridge said.

“This has done a lot for all of them,” she adds.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.