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Building Reserves

I wonder (and worry) about millennials. I have the privilege of helping a 17-year-old with his matric Afrikaans. He battles, as he has never really been exposed to Afrikaans conversations or done any reading. Of course, I think of brain development and the saying “If you don’t use it, you lose it…”, and I wonder what happens to these new young brains that are being used so differently from the way we used ours. I remember as a child having to wait for new books to be delivered to the town library because I have read all the stock that I was interested in.

Building brain reserves fascinates me. Neuroplasticity is the ability to build new neurological pathways, and the brain seems to have an endless ability to build these pathways. Every time we do something new for the first time, a new neurological pathway is formed. If we do this new thing over and over for 21 days, a new structure is permanently created. Voilá – you have built capacity and reserves. It would seem that this ability is almost endless. You can build new pathways daily.

It would seem that the reverse also happens. If we do not use our brains, these pathways will shrivel up and disappear over time. It is usually the early connections, the things we learn when we are young, and growing up, that are deeply entrenched and will survive. The things we are taught by our mothers – to eat independently, walk, use the toilet, bath/shower, and get dressed that we almost never forget to do. Mostly because we have done these our entire lives, but also because we learned them at a very early age.

It is never too late to develop new neurological pathways. Even when we are old and living with dementia, our brain can and will still create new neurological pathways and reserves. That is why it is so important to be in an environment where we can grow. Somehow, this concept seems strange to many older people and those who support them. We can never stop growing – because like in the rest of nature, if something stops growing, it starts dying.

Growth can take on so many forms – and the most obvious one to me is to grow relationships. Even when we are really old and living in a Care Home, we are surrounded by people who clean our rooms, bring our food, work in the garden, and paint the building. If we can make it our business to connect with every person who enters our lives, and truly connect in a meaningful manner, we will never stop growing. To be interested, to ask about them, their lives, their children, where they come from, and what their passions are, will stimulate and enrich our lives. We will feel connected, they will feel important, and they will most probably spend a bit more time in our room.

We can always find ways to give, and not just receive. Reaching out and being interested in someone else’s life is a way of giving. Asking about their child’s exams, or the netball game they played on the weekend will give a sense of identity and belonging. We do not need to create artificial activities or events (there is a place for activities and events) if we cultivate a community of true caring, connection and growth.

But most of all, we need to start training ourselves, and our brains, to connect. To be truly interested in someone else – regardless of whether they are a tv personality or the person who cleans the passages. Everyone has a story. Become interested. Remember the detail. Reach out. Connect. Learn to listen, even if you have to write down the names of their children, do it!

We have become obsessed with mindfulness and self-development. We spend hours and loads of money on yoga and meditation and self-help courses. Unless these teach us to be more connected and less up our own backsides, it means nothing. Individuation is not about becoming more YOU, it is about becoming more US. We must become a more socio-centric community if we want to change the world to be a better place. But it also will serve us in our old age if we are truly connected, to have friends who will visit in spite of our stroke, our drooling or our incoherent speech. Friends who will stay, hold our hand, just be with us. Comfort us. Know what our favourite biscuits are and how we like our tea. Friends who will be our advocates, fight the system on our behalf. Again, I believe that the best investment one can make is in friendships that will be there in the long run when the going gets tough.

It is also the best investment in our brains. Socialising will build brain reserves, deep, entrenched neurological pathways that will override atrophy, and reserves that we can tap into when some of the paths might be eroded by age or disease. Start today. Build an investment portfolio of friends and brain reserves while you still have time.

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