The Great Brain Workout began six years ago and has built a strong community for seniors to join and keep physically and mentally active. Under the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown, the group has been required to adapt to an online setting, offering free classes for seniors looking to join and keep social during this period of social isolation.
Jill Simpson’s organization is sponsored by both Woolwich Township and The Woolwich Seniors Association, however it was her idea to begin moving the classes online.
“The program is about maintaining cognitive health as you age, but it’s not a lecture. It’s taking the latest neurosciences and teaching people to apply it to their daily lives,” Simpson explained, noting the activities have been designed to stimulate people’s cognition and maintain mood.
The class is normally hosted in person at a variety of public buildings throughout southern Ontario, ranging from Norwich to Cambridge. The decision to go with an online group stemmed from the need to keep active and social despite the circumstances, she added, noting they decided the classes would be free to make them accessible to anyone interested.
Simpson explains that the effects the current call to stay-at-home may have a particularly big impact on the health of the elderly population.
“Scientific research around the world about the detrimental effects of social isolation, and after the age of 65 studies have shown that social isolation is a greater risk to your health than smoking.”
Being forced to stay at home is another stressor on top of being the most vulnerable demographic for COVID-19.
“I can’t think of anything much worse … especially if you are alone in this world now. All those activities where you have socialized are suddenly gone,” said Simpson.
Although going online is not the same as being in a room with a group of peers and friends, it is a close second and one that is being enjoyed by many. Simpson has placed all of the videos onto The Great Brain Workouts Facebook community. There is also a host of archived episodes available to watch in the group.
Simpson poked fun at the nature of her program: “I also encourage people to call up a friend and do it together, leave your cell phone on. You can talk to each other and complain about what I’m doing, make comments to each other or whatever while you’re doing your class.”
The reoccurring classes Simpson has hosted over the years have brought joy to many in the seniors’ community, including Wanda Shafer, who has been a member of the Great Brain Workout since the very start.
“The Great Brain Workout is just a fantastic program. I’ve been there for I think six years now, since the very beginning, so it’s become sort of an important part of my week. It’s on Friday it’s a good way to wrap up my week,” said Shafer of what the program means to her.
“First of all, you can’t do it without laughing or smiling – it’s lots of fun, it’s challenging physically, and cognitively it involves our bodies and brains. It’s just a great program. Now it is a bit different because it is done virtually, but it’s good because we know the others are participating so it’s a way of sort of staying together and connecting while we have to stay apart. And it gives some familiarity in our routine, which is good because everything is so different right now.”
Eileen Yorysh found Simpson’s classes during her cancer recovery period. Although Yorysh had been seeing physiotherapists and doctors, the “sunshine and laughter” Simpson provided had helped her in many ways.
“I noticed the brochure for a long time, but I had been working full-time. When I took a leave of absence and ended up having cancer, I started going to her classes especially to help me to recover,” said Yorysh, who describes “Jill’s class as the puzzle piece that was missing to recovery”.
Yorysh’s favourite part of the classes is the laughter and fun, although being in quarantine and recently becoming a widow, the sessions helped bring back the enjoyment in her life. Although the class is intended for seniors, Yorsyh insists there is something enjoyable for all, from the exercises, props, games and coffee.