Most of the life changes that Pola Rest has undertaken over the past few years began as efforts to help her 89-year-old mother. Along the way, she wound up helping herself.
Rest's mother has dementia. She needed extra care, so when Rest retired a couple of years ago as a medical transcriptionist in Missoula, Mont., she moved to Naperville, Ill., and into her mother's condominium.
"I was going to go with her wherever she went," Rest said.
Eventually, Rest and her three siblings decided their mother required even more support. So Rest and her mother moved to St. Paul, near another sister. Her mother moved into Sholom Home, which offers assisted living and other types of senior care.
Looking for a project, Rest developed a campaign around a problem she'd noticed her mother encountering: requests in the mail for money from fraudulent or questionable organizations.
"She can't tell the difference between something that's legitimate" and one that, let's say, does not put donations to the best possible use. Rest developed and taught a class to help seniors recognize the difference.
Meanwhile, Rest was working on a different life-changing project. Back in Naperville, she had taken a class called Ageless Grace, a form of exercise designed especially for people with-age related physical or cognitive limitations.
Rest thought Ageless Grace might improve her mother's dementia. Done while seated, the routines are intended to strengthen the muscles, improve balance and coordination. Through the repetitions of unfamiliar movement, Ageless Grace also purports to sharpen the mind.
Rest loved the class so much she immediately took the training to become a teacher.
"I really did feel like it made a difference," she said. "I was very inspired."
Ageless Grace is designed to take advantage of recent scientific research on the brain. Once thought to stay more or less static in adulthood, scientists now believe the brain is capable of changing in function and structure throughout life. Ageless Grace participants move different parts of their bodies in unfamiliar but fun ways — pretending to do the breast stroke, for example, or spelling their name in cursive with their elbows — using mental energy as well as the physical kind.
"The brain can reorganize itself at any age if you give it some work to do," Rest said. "One of the best ways to build neurons is to do something physical that's new to you."
Rest's mother attended the Ageless Grace classes for a while. She has not been able to keep them up, but Rest continues teaching the classes at senior centers around the city (for more information, contact her at AgelessGraceTwinCities@gmail.com).
Rest figures she Ageless Grace might offer some insurance against dementia in her own future. A tendency toward dementia can be passed on genetically, though genes don't entirely determine whether it will develop.
"I don't know if you can do anything about it, if it's just a roll of the dice or what," Rest said. "If possible, I would like to stave that off, if that's what's coming to me."