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Tutoring Students Might Lower Dementia Risk in Older Americans

  • June Soh

Shirley Mickel, 62, who retired from the federal government, might be lowering her risk of dementia by volunteering at a Washington, DC elementary school twice a week.

Shirley Mickel, 62, who retired from the federal government, might be lowering her risk of dementia by volunteering at a Washington, DC elementary school twice a week.

Children aren't the only ones who benefit when people over 55 volunteer in schools

Retired Americans seeking useful ways to spend their time find that tutoring children not only helps the students, but may also reduce their own risk of developing dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Volunteering in the classroom

Chaniya Anderson is a second grader at Whittier Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

She is a little behind in math and reading so she gets one-on-one tutoring twice a week from 62-year-old volunteer Shirley Mickel, a retired federal government employment discrimination investigator.

"I really love it. It gives me an opportunity to give back. It is my way of giving back," says Mickel. "Also, it helps me to stay alert and stay involved with children. I love children. I love to see them learn."

Gloria Pendleton is 65 years old. She worked for the U.S. Navy as a computer systems programmer. She also tutors students at Whittier.

"I feel much better. I feel like I am learning," she says. "I am constantly trying to learn along with the children."

Experience Corps

Mickel and Pendleton are both members of Experience Corps, a national program that pairs people over 55 with students from low-income families. Research suggests helping students problem solve and read may actually improve areas of the brain, such as frontal lobes, in older Americans.

Research suggests helping students problem solve and read may actually improve areas of the brain, such as frontal lobes, in older Americans.

Experience Corps' 2000 volunteers tutor and mentor elementary students in 23 cities across the country.

"What I have seen is a lot of kids take off because they do have the one-on-one attention," says Kathleen Kaye, who has participated in the program for over three years. "And they are up to grade level if not beyond as a result of having been in the program."

Kaye feels that she gets back more than she gives. Irving Wilson echoes Kaye's feeling. He's been in the program for seven years.

"I get a lot of benefits from being in this program," says Wilson. "I keep my mind active and, coming to school three times a week, walking up and down the steps, that kept me physically able."

Health benefits

Recent research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland indicates that the volunteers do benefit from their efforts.

Michelle Carlson is the associate director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins. Irving Wilson says volunteering keeps both his mind and body active.

Irving Wilson says volunteering keeps both his mind and body active.

"By volunteering through this particular program, Experience Corps, what it may be showing preliminary is that volunteering and exercising your brain to help problem solving and to help children read may actually be improving the areas of brain such as frontal lobes," says Michelle Carlson, associate director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins. "And, by improving this parts of brain, we may be reducing the risk of dementia such as the most common form of dementia being Alzheimer's disease."

Carson says that older adults are growing in numbers around the world, and there are mutual benefits to pairing them with children who need help.

"The beauty of it is that we are not asking you to take a pill, We are asking you to get back to engage with other people in need so that at the same time that you are helping others, you are helping yourself."

The volunteers say they do feel rewarded. Not only by looking at children and seeing them grow, but they also enjoy being able to contribute and being part of the community.

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