Consider this scenario: Your spouse asked you to pick up an item at the grocery store on your way home from work, and the supermarket was indeed on your route home. Once you noticed the store’s sign, your brain reminds you of the task at hand. “Oh yeah, I have to remember to pick up that spice at the store.”
For most people, seeing the grocery sign is the trigger to stop at the store; it’s a spontaneous retrieval process. But when it comes to older adults, they’re not always able to experience automatic retrieval. For the average, cognitively healthy older adult, strong cues are typically associated with spontaneous retrieval; in fact, this is one area in which younger and older adults perform similarly. A deficient spontaneous retrieval process can be a sign of dementia, as even vivid cues aren’t good reminders.
Exploring the cognitive processes of how the brain changes across a lifespan is the driving force behind much of the research performed by Jill Shelton, a UC Foundation associate professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her CALM Lab (cognitive aging, learning and memory) focuses on behaviors in which outcomes can be transformed – with an emphasis on developing students as researchers.
“This has been a lifelong endeavor for me, and it’s a topic that I’m very passionate about,” said Shelton, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTC and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. “I am genuinely intrigued by older adults. I love their stories. I appreciate what they have to contribute.”
While a certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, “we know over time that there are real changes in the brain,” said Shelton, who studies both healthy aging and dementia. “But you may have to adjust your perspective. Getting a diagnosis like dementia doesn’t mean that this is the end of the road for you. It just means that the road may take you in a different direction.”
Statistics show that the number of older adults is growing, and that number is predicted to grow significantly over time. Shelton gets the opportunity to train the next generation of people working in her field.
“We’re living longer, and we want to make sure that we have a high quality of life. So, we need a workforce in all areas to be able to support elders,” she said. “I’m hoping that getting college students involved in service work allows them to consider careers in gerontology and lets them see the value of community engagement.”
Shelton spoke with excitement detailing the research of one of her recent students, as she supervised Thomas Vorwerk’s master’s thesis in 2019 at Summit View Senior Community. The Chattanooga facility has a diverse group of elders in terms of health status; some are independent, some are in assisted living, some have neurological disorders.
“Thomas did such a fantastic job running those workshops that he is now employed there,” Shelton said. “We went through a five-week intervention where we taught them everyday memory strategies. We taught them things they could do to remember their new neighbor’s name or ways to remember to call their granddaughter on their birthdays. Maybe they wanted to remember a clip from a TV show to tell their friend. We saw benefits to their confidence in their memory. We saw fairly high levels of mastery of those strategies.”
Shelton said they focused each week on a memory strategy that had been empirically demonstrated. For example, they trained older adults to be strategic about how they set up reminders; if you must remember to take medicine when you go to breakfast, put the medicine right by your breakfast food — and not on a sticky note left by your bed.
“Another week, we taught them about a strategy that helps you remember people’s names by associating a memorable fact about that person with their name,” she explained. “It’s called ‘elaborative encoding’ in the cognitive psychology world, where you’re getting information into your memory system by processing it more deeply.”
Another current focus is a program called Bingocize, which is the combination of bingo and exercise. Jason Crandall, an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, initially conceived the idea of blending an exercise program for elders with bingo. He has since enlisted the assistance of Shelton and Amy Doolittle, a UTC associate professor of social work, in bringing the program to Tennessee. In collaboration with Crandall, Shelton and Doolittle have landed grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and from Western Kentucky University to implement Bingocize in elder care facilities across the state.
“One of the key features of Bingocize is we wanted students to be involved,” Shelton said. “Students will work with aging facility staff members in leading the Bingocize programs. They will perform research to see how participation by elders affects their health and well-being. Dr. Doolittle and I will have students from our classes working together as part of experiential learning.”
Shelton said the Bingocize program complements the work she has done by encouraging both the cognitive and physical well-being of elders. “And the social piece is essential, too,” she pointed out. “Just getting them out and engaged with the community and making them realize they can continue to be active is crucial.”
Shelton is committed to elder care in Chattanooga. She said people in the community can get involved either by volunteering to serve as participants in the research or through donations to support efforts to improve the health and well-being of elders. She is passionate about teaching older adults tips and strategies so they will have a tool kit to enhance their cognition.
“As people get older, and we’re going to be on this Earth for that much longer, we want to be enjoying ourselves, maintaining quality of life, and doing all the things that we’ve always done,” she said. “We may have to change the way we do things a little bit, but we should be able to continue living our lives the way we want to live them, regardless of how we age.
“I’m getting older every day, too. I think as I age, I’ll continue to become increasingly invested in this work.”