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New program aims to keep seniors mentally active and thriving

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor

Senior Odyssey participants
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Senior Odyssey participants, from left, Jean Sattazahn, Margaret Rinkel, Mary Cornell, and Betty Towley, are keeping their brains engaged.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Puzzles, brain-teasers, games and creative problem-solving. For many, they’re a fun diversion, but could they also help keep seniors mentally vibrant as they age?

One researcher, Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, thinks maybe they could, and has been trying out her theory this school year with a new program called Senior Odyssey.

More than 50 seniors, age 60-plus, have been participating. Their big event comes April 23, with their first annual tournament.

Senior Odyssey is part of a two-year research study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a first attempt to apply the concepts behind a program designed for the young, Odyssey of the Mind, to a new audience of retirees. The funding comes from a $45,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Stine-Morrow, a professor of educational psychology, has built her career studying how aging affects reading, memory and learning. She was exposed to Odyssey of the Mind almost a decade ago, when her son, then in fifth grade, got involved in the program, and she signed up as a coach.

“It was just a really neat program,” Stine-Morrow said. “I just thought some of the seniors participating in our research would just love the kinds of things we were doing.”

The original program aims to develop creativity and problem-solving skills in students from kindergarten through college, through both cooperative team-oriented exercises and competitive events.

Stine-Morrow sought to develop a version that would cater to seniors, help keep them mentally and socially active, and even delay certain age-related declines.

“As a society, we put younger people in educational settings where they’re always challenged, they’re always cooperating or competing with other people to accomplish a goal, they’re always having to work intellectually,” she said. “We generally don’t afford that opportunity to older adults.”

Stine-Morrow ran a short pilot program last spring, then advertised in the summer for participants in the current program, which has run through the fall and spring. The participants were given a battery of tests, then split up into small groups that would meet in weekly one-hour sessions, each led by a student coach employed by the program.

One of those signing up to participate was Jean Sattazahn, who came to the program after seeing an ad in the paper and then calling to check it out. “I was told that it involved playing games – I love games – and solving puzzles – I love doing that too,” she said. She recruited a friend, Margaret Rinkel, to join her, and the two have driven from their homes in Mahomet to the Illinois campus every Tuesday for their weekly session.

For Rinkel, “the idea of creative problem-solving with a small group drew me in,” she said. When she taught high school English, she liked to design games to liven up the study of grammar.

Sattazahn and Rinkel were assigned to a group with Mary Cornell and Betty Towley, both from Mattoon, and Judith Kutzko, from Urbana. They’ve come to call themselves the “MENSA Blondes,” and have even designed their own group T-shirts.

In the weekly sessions, the facilitator takes the group through a progression of various brain-teasers, puzzles and word games designed to work different abilities. In a warm-up exercise on a particular Tuesday morning, the “Blondes” were asked to quickly think of unconventional uses for objects such as an umbrella or a rolled-up sock.

Exercises that followed asked them to quickly think of associated words, or to link two objects in a sentence. Later came word puzzle pictures, and the group was seriously stumped for a while on “WBOEOADRS” (bear in the woods).

For the big event on this particular morning, the student facilitator, Stephanie Willis, supplied the group with four paper clips, two pieces of yarn, two rubber bands, a sheet of paper and a cup filled with water.

The women then were asked to work as a team and use the odd assortment to move the cup over a table while keeping their hands at a set distance. After about 15 minutes, lots of head scratching and two or three failures, they found their solution.

Kutzko said the problem-solving challenges like this one were among the things she enjoyed about the weekly sessions. “I like thinking ‘outside the box’ to come up with a solution to something I wouldn’t usually be doing,” she said. The math problems she was not so crazy about.

The various groups or teams also have spent time every week working on a long-term problem drawn from a list produced by Odyssey of the Mind. They must present their solutions through performances, complete with costumes and props, at the upcoming tournament. The teams will be scored by a panel of judges, in this and another problem-solving exercise, and cash prizes will be awarded to the winners.

Stine-Morrow doesn’t know yet whether Senior Odyssey is making a measurable difference in the participants’ quality of life or mental functioning. Tests and analysis, which also will include a control group of about 20, will come when the program is over.

One potential drawback to that analysis may be that the program attracts many seniors who already are engaged and active, “who are squeezing this in between their golf game and their volunteering,” Stine-Morrow said. As a result, any effects may be smaller or harder to measure, she said. “The challenge for us is to bring in the couch potatoes.”

The Senior Odyssey Tournament is free and open to the public, and will be held from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on April 23 at the Champaign Park District’s Hays Center, 1311 W. Church St., Champaign. Anyone interested in participating in next year’s Senior Odyssey program can call 217-244-7931.