CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Beverly Smith's face is etched with concentration.
Smith knows numbers have never been her strength. At 81, that truth is even more evident. But it doesn't stop the Western Home resident from trying her hardest to recall the jumble of telephone numbers professor Theresa Kouri is quickly reciting to the group.
"How'd we do?" Kouri asked.
"Terrible," replied Carl Boice, 74.
Boise laughed just a bit at his sometimes failed attempts to recall the 10-digit numbers.
Smith and Boice are part of a new program partnership between the University of Northern Iowa's Roy Eblen Speech and Hearing Clinic and Western Home Communities. Kouri started the Senior MINDS (Memory, Intellect, Nutrition, Detection and Stamina), in part, as a way for the university to give back to the community. But, more importantly, she said, she wanted to reach out to a population that may benefit from certain preventive measures that have been proven to ward off early-onset dementia.
"This project is very important in a community where you have a fairly large population of aging seniors," she said. "Prevention is getting to be so important and since I know as much as I do about cognition and language and the loss of it through medical conditions and the aging process, I know that this is one of those areas that can be addressed."
The six-week pilot program partnered more than 20 Western Home residents with UNI students. Each week the group would hear a short lecture about things they could do to prevent memory loss --- most recently the conversation focused on nutrition --- before engaging in multiple activities aimed at strengthening the seniors' brain function. Between classes Kouri communicates with the students to troubleshoot any issues or concerns they have with their senior.
"The biology of aging is pretty intricate. What it is leading us to believe is that we should not be sitting around and aging gracefully," she said. "We should be doing things to make the aging process more rewarding and satisfactory."
Smith said she accepted the opportunity to see how her mind was doing.
"After the phone numbers, I think I might be off the wall," she said. But Smith expected as much. "Math has never been my thing from second grade on. I've always loved to read, so I am a lot better with the word activities."
And there are plenty of those, too. Most recently the seniors were pitted against their student partner to create sensible sentences out of random words. Boice, a former tool maker, flew through the math and spatial relation activities, but sometimes struggled when words were part of the equation.
"I've learned that sometimes things are working, and sometimes they're not," he said.
Jessica Sexe, a UNI grad student, volunteered to be a part of the program. Traditionally she works with children and adults with speech and communication disorders. Working with typically aging seniors has been a great way to increase her capacity to help.
"It's nice to compare what a normal level is for the elderly. It gives me a better idea on where to set goals for my clients with speech and language disorders," she said.
Kouri said all the activities that they are using in the classroom are similar to the ones used in the clinic, just at "a much higher level."
She added that other UNI students have already expressed interest in participating in a second round of the program, set to begin after the first of the year. She will take what she learned this semester to tweak the program and then use the data from the two classes to determine a course for the future.
"The million dollar question is how do you put this out to the community more aggressively. At some point, we will have to do that," Kouri said. "I don't want to close my door to anyone in the Cedar Valley community."