Helping Seniors Thrive
A cross-disciplinary team of students work to prevent and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by leading brain exercise programming.
6 min. read
November 7, 2023

While disease and illness are devastating results of the Fall, Redeemer students Melody Breukelman and Emily French believe that there are ways that we can join in God’s redemptive work, such as volunteering with the Brain Exercise Initiative (BEI).

Breukelman and French are co-presidents of the Redeemer University chapter of BEI. Breukelman is a fourth-year pre-medicine student with a minor in chemistry. French is also a fourth-year student, studying health sciences and psychology. As co-presidents, they lead a small team of volunteers, hailing from a variety of programs, who go into retirement homes to host brain exercise programming for older adults. These volunteers hope to improve cognitive function in those who have Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, and those who are at risk of developing it.

Founded by Dr. Esin Gumustekin, BEI is an American nonprofit organization with 80 chapters and 1,300 volunteers across the United States and Canada. Weekly BEI sessions last one hour, with 10 to 15 participants, and include three main, simple activities: trivia, mental math and reading aloud. The classes
are flexible, as the exercises are adaptable to the preferences and needs of the participants. Session leaders encourage the residents to focus on speed, completion and social interaction rather than accuracy; the priority is putting the brain to work over any particular outcome.

Breukelman and French both discovered the group at Redeemer’s clubs fair in their second year and have been volunteering ever since. This year, Redeemer’s BEI chapter hosts programming at two retirement homes, Highgate Residence and Chartwell Deerview Crossing.

The nonprofit has grounded its methodology in the innovative research done at Tohoku University by neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, published in the journal article “Reading Aloud and Arithmetic Calculation Improve Frontal Function of People With Dementia.” The research findings indicate that simple mental exercises can significantly assist in cognitive rehabilitation.

While we certainly serve the residents through the sessions, it is also an extraordinary blessing for us to talk to, learn from and feel cared for by them.

BEI gives students invaluable opportunities for service and friendship across generational divides.

“Intergenerational relationships are super important,” says Breukelman. “As Redeemer students, we are constantly around people our own age, at the same stage of life. This opportunity lets me interact directly with seniors, which I don’t regularly get to do—outside of some interaction at church. You get a different perspective from them, especially when you get to hear their incredible life stories.”

French says that her and Breukelman’s passion for the seniors is the driving force behind what they do, adding that “the nature of the relationships is bidirectional. While we certainly serve the residents through the sessions, it is also an extraordinary blessing for us to talk to, learn from and feel cared for by them.”

Breukelman and French describe the visits as being very rewarding due to the genuine connections they make with residents. They’ve experienced BEI’s impact—on both the seniors and themselves—first-hand.

“There was this one lady who came consistently to every single session,” says Breukelman. “She was always very involved, talkative, finished the exercises very quickly—and was more than 100 years old! She loved coming, and apparently talked about the session to others in the retirement home days after
we were there.” French remembers another very special woman: “I had this one resident with fairly severe Alzheimer’s, but she had, on her calendar, the sessions circled in bright red marker. She would even wait at the door for me when I arrived and ask for extra packets she could do during the week.”

As part of health care, part of our calling is to help people and come alongside them, showing them Christ’s love and grace.

Breukelman is currently applying to optometry programs because she is interested in researching the neural pathways connecting the brain and the eye. French also wants a career in health care, specifically looking to a career in nursing. She says that experience with BEI has been a true gift and has helped her solidify her future aspirations.

“The relational aspect has been huge for me, and the opportunity to serve, help and connect with the seniors has helped affirm what I believe my calling to be,” says French. “I love the science aspect as well. I’m fascinated by how far research has come, but also how much more there is to discover. These exercises are supposed to delay and slow the progression, and the research is coming to life. Seniors are beating their previous times and remembering what we read about in past weeks.”

With a Christian worldview, Breukelman and French understand health care to be a tangible expression of God’s command to love your neighbour. They also know that God is the great physician and is ultimately Lord over all, including our health.

“With any disease, we pray for healing, as we know that God is able to heal, but a lot of the time that comes through the work of scientists, health scientists and researchers,” says Breukelman. “God is working through these people, even if they don’t realize it. As part of health care, part of our calling is to help people and come alongside them, showing them Christ’s love and grace.”

Hear from Breukelman about her experience in the pre-medicine program in episode 12 of the Redeemer Podcast, “Pre-Med Program at Redeemer University.”

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