Cate McCarty knows a thing or two about brain health. The St. Petersburg-based gerontologist, who has a Ph.D., often presents lectures on the topic, at the Long Center in Clearwater, the Gulfport Senior Center and at corporate events. The 60-year-old also counsels clients on brain health and how to cope with dementia, often working with both patient and caregiver. She also blogs about brain health (catemccarty.com/blog-2/). LifeTimes talked with McCarty after a recent workshop at the Long Center about her approach to brain health and about the cognitive, creative and emotional benefits of music, dance and movement.
How do you decide what to emphasize in one of your workshops or with clients?
I pick topics I’m interested in. Even if there is a dementia diagnosis, I start with overall health (and) end up with dementia.
There is a lot of research on brain health. How do you boil it down to a short workshop?
I keep it within a five-year research (window). I look at the top medical sites in a general web search worldwide. American research tends to look at pharmaceutical solutions only. I try to do both — academic and anecdotal. I do academic research first. I try to keep it light so the general public finds it interesting.
How do you keep a talk on brain health and recent research from becoming boring?
You can see them glazing over. I try to have a worksheet that brings it back to them. In the music and brain workshop, I have them list their (song) playlist for when they’re sad. Well, surprisingly, there’s a study that shows that actually is good for your brain. There’s another new study that (states) the idea of having a good social life with dancing and conviviality leads to a sense of humor.
So you have people dancing at your workshops?
In Clearwater, I have the Long Center’s dancing instructor and we do a line dance. It’s fun having people practice dancing.
Do your workshops and blog have the goal of teaching new information?
To learn things is good for the brain. You want to learn something new because you’re here. That’s one of the key parts. One of the factors a new study showed: Be willing to take on new activities (and you’ll) have a better protection from dementia.
If your approach to brain health isn’t medical, what is your approach?
I come at it from a practical and psycho-social perspective. I have a psychology degree and gerontology degree and I have worked with people with dementia for 40 years. I’m very practical.
How do you work with clients with dementia and their caregivers?
Often a person with dementia, if they have a behavioral change, they have a need. Maybe it’s something they can’t process. When there is a time change, things get wonky. I approach them on the micro level. Then I zoom out and look at the home environment. All the research points to the importance of environment.
It sounds like you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with having dementia or dementialike behaviors. Is that your philosophy?
I think what I manage to do, my goal, is I de-stigmatize brain change ... by going at it (asking) what can we do for a healthy brain. People pussyfoot around the idea of dementia. Socialization is huge. What seems to happen, when we feel like we’re losing it, we start isolating.
What’s another area of the environment you look at when exploring dementia and brain change?
Hearing is huge. With hearing loss, you’re already losing what you need to process. Go get a hearing aid ... early. We don’t do these things early enough. If you’re deaf in your left ear, don’t let people sit on your left side. We’re so into people pleasing, we don’t take care of ourselves.
The person you most want to talk with, sit with them across from you so you can watch them. Go out early. You get better hearing (in a restaurant) when it’s earlier. Not as busy and not as noisy.
What is a way you interact with clients with dementia and their caregivers?
We walk in the mall. We go early, walk about 20 minutes, and we’re eating burgers at 11:30 and we’re out before it gets noisy. Sometimes we do a scavenger hunt (with) clues over the whole mall. This takes about 45 minutes. We’re doing it for the exercise.
You could walk with a group many places. Why a mall?
We’re not putting them out. We use things already there. I give them a sheet of things to look for. Like Halloween decorations. How many orange things did you see on the walk? One of the favorites, especially for the me: Were the Victoria’s Secret mannequin models brunet or blond?
For clients and caregivers, what are some early warning signs to look for in terms of brain health and dementia?
One of the first things to go (is) if your world starts shrinking. Things you used to do you no longer are willing to do. It’s a sign. You need to still do these things. Learn to adapt them. You can strategize.
What is another activity that can be adapted to a changing brain?
If they already played bridge but no longer remember how to play bridge, it’s okay to play War. You’re still playing cards. It’s an easy one. Adapt the rules. Don’t give up everything.
So the message is never stop looking for opportunities to engage, to interact?
Find other outlets. Look for a way to volunteer. Give them a role. Maybe it’s a preschool reading program where individuals with dementia come and read to them. It’s anything that honors the dignity of the individual.
Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at [email protected]
To learn more
For additional information about Cate McCarty’s workshops and mall walks, call (813) 384-7571, email [email protected] or visit catemccarty.com.