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Wellness & Prevention

Puzzles and other mind games are good tools to strengthen the mind.

A stroke of genius

Swedish Covenant Hospital teams up with Lincoln Square game store for stroke rehabilitation
By Tracy Hernandez
Senior staff writer
Puzzles and other mind games are good tools to strengthen the mind.

One simple word, uttered by Paul Hasenwinkel, was cause for celebration (and big hugs) in a Stroke Club meeting at Swedish Covenant Hospital held earlier this year.

As a result of a stroke he suffered in August 2009, Paul, 46, of Edgewater, lives with expressive aphasia and apraxia of speech, disorders which make finding words and expressing speech difficult. For this reason, just retrieving and expressing the word “hug” was a breakthrough for him. 

It was also a breakthrough for Leigh Cohen, a speech therapist in Outpatient Rehabilitation and Stroke Club coordinator, in her search for new, innovative ways to help stroke patients regain cognitive and linguistic abilities: Cohen and Paul were playing a word game when Paul was able to respond to a prompt, recall the answer and say it aloud — a task he had been working toward for months.

“Paul has expressive aphasia. So if you were to ask him to just say ‘hug,’ he may struggle with it,” Cohen said. “But since he was responding to a word challenge, it activated a different part of his brain and he was able to speak. “

Cohen uses a variety of games designed to exercise certain parts of brain when working with Stroke Club members as a form of therapy, and watches for signs of improvement. The idea is that different games challenge different aspects of thinking, including memory, coordination, critical thinking, visual perception and word skills. Therefore, patients can use games which specifically target the areas in which they need rehabilitation. 

Although a formal study is still in its preliminary stages, Cohen said she has already found that the games can indeed create new pathways in the brain that may allow patients to achieve progress they never thought possible, improve their cognitive processing speed and increase their attention spans.

Facilitating breakthroughs like Paul’s is the core goal of the monthly Stroke Club, which serves as a voluntary support group and therapy session for the 15 to 20 stroke survivors who attend, as well as their caregivers, family members, friends and visitors from the community.

At each session, club participants have the opportunity to hear from a variety of clinical experts and learn new ways to overcome the unique challenges of stroke survival, including the loss of mobility, speech, word comprehension, memory and social connection.

Last year, when Cohen began toying with the idea of games as therapy, she got in contact with Marbles: The Brain Store in Lincoln Square to learn more about what games are available. The store responded by donating several games to the group which provide mental health benefits, as well as entertainment . 

Although fun, lighthearted and kid-friendly, Marbles is more than a toy store; it is a resource for tools and activities designed to strengthen the mind.  In fact, the store’s mission statement emphasizes that their games can be especially beneficial for people living with brain disorders like stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia and ADHD.  They have also started a new program, MindMatters, designed specifically to give older adults in long-term care communities access to a variety of brain fitness activities.

When presented with the games from Marbles and given a tutorial, many Stroke Club attendees, including Paul, were eager to try out the games, which was very encouraging for Cohen.

Today she is preparing to conduct a study comparing the success of traditional stroke therapies to therapeutic, non-traditional methods, like the mind games. Paul’s speech and word comprehension continue to improve in his work with Cohen. They play games during Stroke Club meeting and individual therapy sessions and look forward to more happy breakthroughs in the future.