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UCF Students Use Wii and Yoga to Help Alzheimer's Patients

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By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala

Eighty-nine-year-old Fred Tombros calls the therapy sessions he attends with University of Central Florida graduate students a "godsend."

Tombros is one of 12 people who attends sessions of Brain Fitness, a program aimed at helping those with early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or other dementia keep their cognitive skills sharp.

UCF students provide individual evaluations and therapy sessions. Then the student therapists work with the participants to sharpen their cognitive skills by playing games on the Wii, along with ping-pong, pool, Scrabble and other games.

"I'd be at home doing nothing," said Tombros, a former glassmaker who has been coming to the program at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park for two years. "Here I learn some things, help out the students and enjoy myself. I can't complain about a thing."

Nancy Gerrity founded Brain Fitness in 2007 for a very personal reason. Her husband Tom, in his early 50s, was diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer's disease. At the time, there were no local day facilities that provided appropriate stimulation for persons with early onset dementia, so she began advocating for one.

"What I found was a real gap in what was provided and what was needed," said Gerrity, who works full time at an engineering firm. "So, with the help of a few people, we created Brain Fitness."

Peggy Bargmann, a registered nurse and the director of a support group Gerrity attended, directs the two-day-a-week program. Clinical Instructor Janet Whiteside at the UCF Communication Disorders Clinic supervises the graduate students, who are studying speech therapy, during the weekly visits to Brain Fitness.

"Each game, everything we do here has a purpose," Bargmann said. "It's not just entertainment; it helps keep certain cognitive skills sharp."

Tombros, for example, loves to play pool. So, as part of his therapy, he teaches others the game. Another participant is learning to play ping-pong, which is helping her process new information and coordination. Group activities include yoga, drawing and walking.

Tonia LaTesta, a UCF graduate student, said she is learning as much or more than some of the clients. 

"I had no idea what to expect," LaTesta said. "I had these ideas of what dementia patients were like -that they stayed at home and couldn't do much. Now I know better. Consistency can help maintain and even improve their abilities."

Nancy Slay, another graduate student, said she finds the experience invaluable.

"It really prepares you because there's one thing to learn it in a book and then there's real practice when you have a real client and you have to specialize what you are doing to meet that person's need," she said.

The UCF Communication Disorders Clinic maintains many partnerships with community groups to benefit local residents and give students practical experience.

The program is funded through grants and private donations. First United Methodist Church provides the space for free and recently agreed to take on the program as one of its ministries. Still, the program can always use financial support, Gerrity said.

The cost for participants is $35 per day. Because UCF students provide the therapy sessions, the program is run on a semester basis and takes breaks during the holidays.

"I'm so grateful for all the help we've received," Gerrity said. "The church has been supportive, and the partnership with UCF is great. It has benefited our family personally, and to know this helps so many others, it's so rewarding."

For information on the program, call Brain Fitness at 407-927-4380.

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