Q & A with Program Manager Kathryn Cherkas, MIPH

 

By Laurie Mason, program coordinator

Social, Emotional, Cognitive and Physical: Friendship Center’s program is designed to exercise four facets of healthy human life … every day.

Glance at a typical day on Friendship Center’s agenda and you might think, “That’s a pleasant way to spend time.” A closer look reveals a carefully crafted plan that exercises four primary facets of healthy human existence: the social, physical, cognitive and emotional. 

Friendship Center’s Program Manager Kathryn Cherkas, MIPH (Master’s of International Public Health), combined her background in aging and community health with these four principles to organize a joyful yet deceptively purposeful program that includes Morning Tea & Talk, Stretching & Exercise, Art, Music, Hometown Visits, Outdoor Adventures, and so much more. 

In this Q&A, Kathryn outlines how Friendship Center’s daily curriculum touches all four pillars (and beyond), providing members with not just a pleasant day, but a pleasant day with meaning.

Why focus on these four areas?

Physical, emotional, cognitive and social—I say ‘PECS’—are essential to our wellbeing. That looks different to people with different abilities, but all humans need to be engaged in all four. All categories of Friendship Center’s recreation—and the goal of therapeutic activity—is to maintain our levels of PECS. 

How is Friendship Center different from a medical model of care?

We don’t see things and think, ‘I have to treat this.’ We see the outcome for our member, and meet it. Our goal is to maintain that level and help members feel successful at their level. Our ultimate goal is to maintain and celebrate everyone where they are. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

Talk about how social needs are met at Friendship Center. 

Ultimately, it’s all social, but with different goals. Morning Tea & Talk is when we catch up. We will talk about families, children, grandchildren, our pets, gifts and family letters. 

During Outdoor Adventures, we can use Google Maps to visit our members’ former childhood neighborhoods, sharing the screen via Zoom. We can find members’ high schools and talk about their activities and friendships. 

By digging up old memories—or recent happenings—we enable members to see how much they have in common, and a bond develops. It becomes a group of friends talking, while also exercising the parts of the brain that store memories.

What activities exercise emotions, and why is this important?

For an individual with dementia, parts of the brain that store emotion, such as the amygdala, often degenerate more slowly than other areas, such as the hippocampus. What this means is that while members might not process new information, they’re still able to demonstrate an emotional response to that same information. 

I look for a reaction. I make them smile any way I can. Clowning around and being silly. We don’t use regular things as a metric. A twinkle in their eyes, a guffaw. When you see a reaction, you know the amygdala is still working. 

Music has been proven to be a direct way to tap into emotions, so we have singing and music every day in our program. Art, poetry, writing can trigger emotional expression, so we do art every day too. 

In the context of dementia or brain injury, what is a typical cognitive activity? 

A cognitive activity is about getting gears turning. Solving problems and looking for answers. 

We have a special program called ‘Connections’ tailored to higher functioning adults with the goal of stimulating cognitive brain activity. We might do simple math activities, sign language classes, trivia and word games, concentration and crossword puzzles, or memory recall activities all with the goal of pushing the gear to find a new answer.

Let’s talk about physical activity. I’ve recently read that sitting is basically giving our brains the message that we’re done. How do you get people moving at Friendship Center?

Coordination as we age is a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. This is true of balance in particular. When Friendship Center is open and in full swing, members walk all day. We do conga lines, there’s a walking club. We might visit the Rosewood Hotel or picnic on the beach.

Currently in our Zoom program, we offer stretch and movement classes twice a day. This might include yoga and breathing exercises. We encourage people to get up and walk around between activities if that’s possible for them.

You can help Kathryn and all of us providing this urgently needed care during Covid-19 by visiting our Festival of Hearts  virtual fundraiser January 25-February 6. Bid early, bid often! Festival of Hearts raises money to help low-income seniors participate in all programs Friendship Center offers.