Marketplace of Memory

What the Brain Fitness Technology Industry Says About Us and How We Can Do Better

Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc; Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD


Gerontologist. 2011;51(5):590-596. 

In This Article

Making Brain Health Intergenerational

In Cleveland, we have played a role in founding and leading and developing The Intergenerational School, which is the first known school to embrace adults—including persons with dementia—as co-learners with children. For decades, a widening evidence base of cross-sectional and retrospective research has demonstrated that older adults who volunteer in their communities may experience a range of biopsychosocial benefits from physical, mental, and emotional health to longevity (Musick, Herzog & House, 1999; Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1992; Oman, Thoresen, & Mcmahon, 1999; Post, 2007; Post & Neimark, 2007; Van Willigen, 2000). A subset of research has established that older adults who form relationships with children through intergenerational programs seem to experience specific benefits, such as improvements in health status and well-being (de Souza, 2003); increased activity, strength, and cognitive ability (Fried et al., 2004), the creation of meaningful relationships (Gigliotti, Morris, Smock, Jarrott, & Graham, 2005); enhanced self-esteem (Jarrott & Bruno, 2007); increased social capital (de Souza & Grundy, 2007); and better psychological functioning (Chung, 2009). Our own experimental research at the school has shown that intergenerational volunteering reduces stress for persons with mild-to-moderate dementia (George & Singer, 2011; George & Whitehouse, 2010). Such data demonstrate the potential of local communities to intervene in the many pathways of cognitive aging, particularly for vulnerable older persons in our culture (Whitehouse & George, 2008).

Brain fitness technology can certainly play a role in community-based activities. Indeed, on the floor below the school, which is housed in a community center for aging, there once existed a computer lab stocked with brain fitness technology that was frequented by elders from the surrounding community, including persons from local assisted living homes. Several years ago, after noticing older individuals sitting alone playing brain fitness software in front of personal computers, we made an arrangement to pair our students with elders in the lab once each week. What became important over the course of this partnership was not merely the brain fitness technology but the relationships that formed around that technology: the intergenerational transmission of knowledge that occurred—the mentorship, reciprocity, and meaningful social interaction that took root in the context of this shared community space. Brain fitness products were not an end in and of themselves but were a means of facilitating cognitively and emotionally complex interactions in a shared space in ways that were mutually enriching for the older and younger participants (although it could well be argued that objects such as books do this just as well, and at much less cost). Students at the school have also been involved in co-facilitating workshops with elders aged 55 years and older who were seeking to enter or reenter the workforce but who lacked basic computer skills. During these workshops, students sat between and among their elders in the computer lab, teaching older partners how to search the Internet, craft a resume, create basic word processing documents, and PowerPoint presentations while in turn learning important lessons from elders about the job-search process and the skills required to be employable. In each scenario, the intergenerational relationship forged around the technology produced an emergent dynamic that would not have been possible if the technology had been consumed in private.

Future research at the school will use mixed methods to explore whether the intergenerational usage of online technology such as the 3D world of Second Life and Microsoft's Xbox Kinect technology can foster a more social digital environment in which participants construct rich moments of intergenerational engagement and enable a flourishing of relationships in both shared and virtual spaces. This kind of technology can promote different ways of engaging through the generations (e.g., through avatars) and the computer (e.g., through body movements individually or in multiage groups). The learning fostered by using computers and online networks to understand systems thinking about issues such as human relationships to and responsibilities for watersheds can enhance individual and community thinking about the future. These sorts of dynamic activities can take brain health to deeper and broader levels than the current marketplace allows (Whitehouse, 2010).


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