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   from the issue of November 29, 2007

  Speech and Language Pathology students assist Lincoln retirees

Memory lessons


Every Tuesday morning, two UNL Speech and Language Pathology graduate students set up shop in "the penthouse," a festive area on the top floor of Gateway Manor, a retirement community in Lincoln.

MEMORY LESSONS - Speech and Language Pathology graduate students Brian Schmoll and Katie Kersch discuss memory aids with Gateway Manor retirees...
 MEMORY LESSONS - Speech and Language Pathology graduate students Brian Schmoll and Katie Kersch discuss memory aids with Gateway Manor retirees on Nov. 21. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

Katie Kersch and Brian Schmoll, who volunteer at Gateway to gain clinical experience, pepper the elders - whose ages span approximately 20 years - with questions. Who had relatives visit this week? Who's heading home for Thanksgiving?

When the small talk subsides, Kersch and Schmoll launch into the week's activity with their clients in the Healthy Mind, Healthy Living group.

"To me, this group has a three-fold purpose," said Kristi Weissling, the students' supervisor and a UNL lecturer in special education and communication disorders. "One is to educate people about what happens to your mind as you age - what changes in regards to your cognition and memory, what is normal, what should you expect... The second purpose is to help residents stay cognitively active, along the lines of the 'use it or lose it' principle. So we'll do an activity that stimulates the brain. Finally, we want to give strategies to people about what they can do if they're having trouble remembering or staying organized; we want to help them compensate for any difficulties that arise."

Each session begins with a bit of chit-chat between the students and the retirees.

"After we catch up on their lives, we review the strategies we've gone over and see if anyone used them. If any have used a strategy and can provide an example, they get an elephant, a little trophy - they're the star of the week," Kersch said. "We want to encourage use of what they're learning, and acknowledge when they've employed a strategy that helps them. The reason we give them an elephant is that an elephant's said to have a brain that never forgets."

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the elephant went to a resident who remembered to bring her samples of her crocheting to show to the group; Kersch had requested a look at her handiwork at the previous week's meeting. After the presentation of the elephant, Schmoll distributed a Thanksgiving quiz. Around the table, some participants eagerly chimed in with stories and answers about Plymouth Rock and turkeys, while others kept to themselves unless prompted.

"The people we work with are mostly dealing with aging and how that affects mental abilities, such as if there's memory loss or cognitive decline," Schmoll said. "One thing you lose when you have cognitive decline or dementia is your ability to communicate with others; if you have memory loss you lose the ability to remember things you've done so you can't effectively communicate. Or, you might lose some of the language structure or abilities you once had, so that you can't get your message across."

"We work with a range of people, from those whose functionality is pretty much normal to those showing some decline," he added. "We're providing them with ways to exercise their brains, just like exercising a muscle."

the memory elephant Schmoll and Kersch award each week to a retiree who has used a memory recall strategy and...
the memory elephant Schmoll and Kersch award each week to a retiree who has used a memory recall strategy and can provide an example of its use. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.


This is the first semester Speech and Language Pathology students have developed activities for Gateway Manor. Kersch and Schmoll spend time each week designing new games and mini-lessons, and assessing what works and what isn't as popular with participants. The most overwhelmingly popular activity so far is Sudoku.

"So far, this experience has been really great," Weissling said. "It has met or exceeded my expectations of what the first time out would look like. The students have been fantastic, and the people we're working with at Gateway Manor are becoming increasingly attached to the group and interested in making sure they're there on Tuesdays."

Through her work with the Healthy Mind, Healthy Living group, Kersch - who always planned on working with children - has developed an interest in careers involving older adults. She appreciates the willingness of the Gateway Manor residents to try anything once.

"Even if they don't like something, we hope that they buy into the fact that it's something new," Kersch said. "They are very willing to carry on a dialogue with us, it's very co-constructing. I appreciate that, because they give us avenues they would like to take."



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