This is the plan for a u3a Interest Groups Online course on how to cope with neuropsychological challenges in later life. These might include Alzheimer’s Disease, a stroke, concussion or long COVID.

It is called “bilingualism” because being able to express basic needs in another language has been shown scientifically to be the most effective way of deferring serious memory problems. Research in Toronto, Trieste and Hyderabad converge on one conclusion: lifetime experience of workarounds in a second language defers the cognitive effects of Alzheimer’s  by 4.5 years.

The crucial Alzheimer’s failure is encoding of the seven items of Working Memory through the fragile hippocampus to Semantic Memory. Disorientation in time, place and person are the core symptoms. Ability to work around gaps in the last few minutes’ information allows the sufferer to re-orient in time, place and person and get through their muddle.

Only about 15% of native English speakers can get by in another language. Starting German or Italian in one’s 70s might need 200 – 300 contact hours before conversations are more rewarding than frustrating. Not many of us have that level of staying power. So the most realistic strategy is mime based on British Sign language for the deaf.

Mimes would be be based on Charades and British Sign Language for the deaf. BSL signs are mostly nouns, with some verbs and adjectives. There are no endings (morphology). There a few grammatical signs, notably “past” and “future” qualifiers for verbs. “Bone” is rib bones, and “day” is drawing curtains, after one explanation. The cheek strokes of “black”, and also ”white”, are more obscure, so a workaround would be attempted to attempt getting bogged down. We would probably not use finger spelling in English. The course is There are some BSL omissions such as the “phone” mime.

Mimes derived from Charades

You’re on the wrong track. Wave your hands, palms down.   You’re on the right track.    Wave both hands toward yourself, palms toward you.  Stop Hold out both hands with palms facing the interlocutor.  Phrase or quote Make finger-quotes in the air.   Nod or shake head. These are understood in nearly all societies, except some Balkan areas.  Book   Press the palms of your hands together in front of you, then open them as though they were hinged at the little fingers. It should look as though you’re opening a book in your hands. Movie  Hold your left hand up to your eye as though you’re looking through a spyglass, and make vertical circles in the air with your right fist. The idea is that you’re using an old-fashioned, crank-powered movie camera. Song    Hold both hands up to your mouth as if to shout. The idea is holding a megaphone and singing forcefully.  A variation is to tilt your head up, open your mouth and hold out one hand, palm up, à la opera. TV show.        Place your forefingers together in front of you pointing at the players, then draw a rectangle in the air the size and shape of a television screen. Your fingers start at the centre of the top of the screen, then move apart sideways, then down, then back to each other at the centre of the bottom. Play     While looking up, with both hands pretend to continually tow on the pulleyed rope that opens a theatre curtain. Person            Place your hands on your hips, i.e., hold your arms akimbo. Gender conventions are possible, e.g. “1” and “0”  One finger or make a circle with your thumb and forefinger. Sounds like. Tug your earlobe   Chop the word. Use left hand with palm facing and pantomime right hand chopping.   How many words?  Count up the number of words in the target, then hold up that many fingers in front of you, palm(s) facing the audience.

This could be complemented by French vocabulary we learned at school. The French would be a “pidgin”, using two word utterances, and concentrating on high frequency content word, starting with these:

1I (1sg)je39childenfant
2you (2sg)tu (inf), vous 40wifefemme, épouse
3he, she, it (3sg)il (M), elle (F)41husbandmari, époux
4we (1pl)nous42mothermère
5you (2pl)vous43fatherpère
6they (3pl)ils (M), elles (F)44animalanimal
16notne pas54fruitfruit
20fewpeu58bark of treeécorce
28longlong66fat (noun)graisse
37man (adult male)homme75nosenez
38man (human)homme76mouthbouche
French Swadesh list (first 67)

Each session would include some “improvs” as actors say, when you try to get across an idea with pidgin French and mime. It would be quite like Charades, actually quite fun, as it involves pantomime and lots of hilarious misunderstanding.

Rehearsal. After bilingualism, the next most important strategy is to focus on getting new information through the bottleneck between Working Memory and Semantic Memory. New information, mainly Place, Person and Time, is increasingly hard to take in. Rehearsal is the most important technique. You have to decide what is really important and keep saying it enough times that something gets through.

Reality Orientation. An album of recent photos of yourself, with dates and labels, is a way of asserting your identity, for example if you are concussed and wake up in a hospital. The opposite principle, Reminiscence Therapy, is also valid. Singing the song of your teens and 20s brings about pleasant memories.

Post it. The brain effects of COVID may include losing focus and fatigue. Having pen and paper to hand helps.