Barbara Wachstein and I met over a shared mutual interest shortly after being diagnosed with a Grade-3 Brain Injury. Little did I know this meeting would flourish into a mutually beneficial relationship that would contribute to my speedy recovery and plant the seed for a new perspective on Traumatic Brain Injury recovery (TBI), uniting athletes with TBI with the elderly.
At that time, I was heavily concussed. Barbara was full of life and to this day, is a fantastic example of what clean living, a sense of humor, and a positive mindset can do for our longevity. Barbara is 93 years young. As someone experiencing the after effects of a traumatic brain injury, I had been struggling with many things, when Barbara and I realized that I could help her with her struggles, particularly technology, and she with my then brain challenges. It became a lot of fun. It flourished into a mutually beneficial relationship that has now been blooming for over half a decade. My multiple conversations with her rank as some of the best moments, sometimes hours, of my day.
Barbara lives in Michigan and during the winters, or as she would say: “stays the season,’ down in Florida. I’m from Maine. It was while visiting my cousin in Delray Beach when we first met. We immediately hit it off and have not let a day pass without speaking at least once, if not several times, even when she has traveled abroad. Barbara knew how to use her phone to make calls, but the other features such as email, text, photos, and access to the internet were not in her wheelhouse.
Brain injuries are tricky. Each one presents its own challenges and in my case, my executive functioning skills were sluggish when working. I also had a speech impediment: stuttering and slurred speech, which was most troubling to me more than to others. However, Barbara never seemed to mind. She was very patient and would repeat endlessly multiple times the sequence of numbers for a phone number I needed to call on her behalf, without a bit of impatience. She was one of the few that demonstrated this kindness and love.
At that time, neither my doctors nor I had any idea that there was the possibility of rebuilding my executive functioning skills by using a remarkable tool called Neurofeedback, which is like a gym workout for the brain. This is something I have recently found to be highly beneficial. It’s an easy thing to do. Once a week, I sit in front of a large computer screen and watch a favorite movie of my choice–that’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The efficacy of this treatment has been documented in the book Neurofeedback 101 by Michael P. Cohen.
Before my sessions, however, my mental gymnastics and cognitive improvement was to the credit of Barbara’s consistent calling and requesting advice to help with her email, ordering state-of-the-art bathroom fixtures online, or responding to a text several times a day. It was the beginning of my climbing back up out from the depths of cognitive confusion and frustration. You see, according to Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, “if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better” and according to Dr. Lara Boyd,” nothing is more effective than practice in helping you learn, and increased struggle during practice leads to more learning and greater structural change in the brain.”
Barbara was very patient with my fumbling along as I helped her. Now, I realize that this exercise repeated throughout the day, every day for years, helped my brain and my confidence. Mindset is key when conquering any challenge. It was a blessing for all, including our families. My brain began to function better and her connectivity to life was enhanced. She became empowered. As did I.
As an individual who was affected by many brain injuries in my life, and this last one gifting me with many new perspectives, I am advocating for a new organization. It would be akin to “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” and would consist of High School athletes who have been sidelined with Traumatic Brain Injury and the elderly population who are craving for the reconnection with their youthful spirit and the ability to be helpful.
There are so many wonderful older adults in excellent health, living alone, with little immediate or consistent access to their families or youthful community. But, unfortunately, life has a way of allowing families to depend on believing that their love connection to carry them through the vast divide of loneliness created by families’ busy work schedules.
Barbara has two wonderful grown children. Her son and his family in London and her daughter in Oregon. Although she remains in close contact with them via phone, and occasional visits, her newly acquired abilities to navigate FaceTime, write texts, receive information via her email on her phone, Zoom, and share images have been a game-changer for her — and for her children. She was delighted to to attend a virtual family wedding last year.
I have received the gift of a new friend that I can depend upon to always answer the phone if not return the call within an hour. I am grateful for having someone in my life who has shared a wealth of wisdom, humorous stories, and enlightening fascinating perspectives that only one who has experienced the myriad adventures of an abundant life as she can share. I also had the gift of not feeling alone or judged. Laughter has been a massive part of our repartee. I have been able to tell her things that no one else was willing to hear or relate to. Of course, Barbara could not relate entirely either, but she was patient, supportive and kind. My family was patient and kind too, but they still had a rigorous work schedule that does not allow them to answer the minute the phone rings, and I get that. I am grateful they are all gainfully employed.
My transformative experience with Barbara is why I think it would be amazing to join these two populations–the elderly and student-athletes. The recovering reclusive high school brain-injured athlete would regain cognitive skills while helping older individuals learn technology. The elder would be able to impart advice and perspectives enhanced by unique experiences and the younger athletes would be able to learn while lessening their damaging self-induced isolation that they often prefer post head injury in order to avoid the noise and often misunderstood and misperceived criticism of their peers. Isolation interferes with the positive mindset necessary for the healing process.
Combining these two profiles is a no-brian — and science backs it up. It’s time to solve problems with simple math: one TBI athlete + one isolated elder = a winning combination and the beginning to a solution to many of the debilitating and isolating challenges this technologically charged world has created; it will also help bridge the gaps in fostering the creating of healthy thriving relationships.
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Credits and Sources:
1. JS House,
2. KR Landis,
3. D Umberson
1. Department of Epidemiology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 48109.
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Science 29 Jul 1988:
Vol. 241, Issue 4865, pp. 540-545
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Recent scientific work has established both a theoretical basis and strong empirical evidence for a causal impact of social relationships on health. Prospective studies, which control for baseline health status, consistently show increased risk of death among persons with a low quantity, and sometimes low quality, of social relationships. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of humans and animals also suggest that social isolation is a major risk factor for mortality from widely varying causes. The mechanisms through which social relationships affect health and the factors that promote or inhibit the development and maintenance of social relationships remain to be explored.