Helping Families Connect With Their Loved One With Alzheimer's Using the Fit Minds Program

Nicole Scheidl is the CEO and co-founder of Fit Minds, a ‘brain training’ program designed to assist caregivers communicate with their loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. 
I wanted to know more about Nicole’s story and her work helping people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as their families.  Recently, I asked her to tell us more about Fit Minds. 
Donna:  How did you come to develop the Fit Minds program?
NicoleWell, I had a background as a lawyer, teacher, mother and military wife.  A few years ago, my husband was planning to retire which meant that we would settle in once place and I was at crossroads.  I was asking myself questions like, “What is my life’s work?  What would I like to do?” and “How can I make a positive difference in the world?”  Anyway, one day I was in the airport lounge waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit.  When their flight was delayed, I walked over to the bookshop and bought a copy of “Save Your Brain” by Dr. Paul Nussbaum.  As I read, I realized that this book was the key to my future. 

Here is Nicole in conversation with Dr. Paul Nussbaum:  “Practical Tips for Caregivers”:
Donna:  How do you mean?  What did the book tell you about your future?
NicoleWell, I have always been in interested in older people and matters relating to end of life.  I had been a volunteer in palliative care and was always interested in the question, “what is most important in life?”  I think that question (and sometimes answers to that question) are found by helping people at the end of their life.  When I read “Save Your Brain”, I thought, “I am a teacher…. I can take these ideas and create a curriculum – one that families can use together.  I wanted to create a program that would both help slow the progression of dementia as well as assist family caregivers to have authentic communication with their loved one. 

Donna:  So, how did you move from the idea of creating a curriculum to actually building one?
NicoleI started by doing a lot of research into cognitive stimulation and learning styles.  I was encouraged in my research by Dr. Tim Lau, a geriatric psychiatrist with the Royal Ottawa Hospital.  Once I got the curriculum written, I needed to test it.  Luckily, I found a partner for testing the program here in Ottawa – Portobello Manor.   I became very close to one woman who had severe Alzheimer’s.  She was a wheelchair user, not very communicative, incontinent… just very severe.  But, we developed a beautiful friendship.  I had been working closely with her on the Fit Minds program and even though she was severely disabled by Alzheimer’s, I was very fond of her.  One day, I remember it was a Friday and there was a new staff member at the home.  When I came into the room, everyone was chatting and suddenly, my friend saw me.  As normally as anything, she said, “Hi Nicole, how are you?”  Everyone stopped and stared.  This was the first time she had initiated conversation in a very long time.  It fed my soul to work with her.
Donna:  That’s an incredible story and so moving.  I know that your work in Fit Minds is related to caregivers too.  Tell me about that.
NicoleWe know that Fit Minds can make a difference in the area of cognitive challenges, but I wanted to address the issue of relationships too.  When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, isolation and loneliness often descends on the whole family.  But with the right tools, we can still have a relationship with a person we love.  We can still be fully engaged with our loved one. 
Donna:  How has your life changed working with Fit Minds in the area of dementia family care?
Nicole:  My appreciation of what is important in life is definitely more profound.  I feel more deeply human, more compassionate.  I have thought a lot about courage and what it takes to move from despair and loss … to go into it and move through it. 
Donna:  So, tell me about the company and exactly what Fit Minds offers families.
Nicole:  Well, currently we have myself and two main partners – Randall Milburn and Dr. Norm Vinson, as well as Karen Timmons who serves as our Director of Coach Education  and Dr. Paul Nussbaum who has come on board as the Chief Scientific Officer  of the company. We have over 50 independent cognitive coaches in the field  and families can hire them directly to provide the program.  We operate throughout Canada and we are moving into the US, beginning with California and Ohio.  Family caregivers can take advantage of online training that serves to connect with their loved one as well as stimulate their cognition.  That service is accessed via a monthly subscription.
We have an institutional program (in California and in major seniors’ residence chains in Canada).  And finally, we have a prevention program for those at risk of Alzheimer’s or who are showing early signs of dementia.  That program is called the FitMinds Club and involves caregivers as well. 
Donna:  And finally, what does the full FitMinds program curriculum look like?  What are the components?
NicoleThe approach is called the “Global Cognitive Stimulation Approach.”  The first unit consists of music and language.  The second unit focuses on visual/spatial orientation and the third unit is directed at memory.  Critical thinking and computation round out units 4 and 5.  There are 6 activities in each of the five areas, culminating in a ‘full brain workout’. 

Donna:  Thank you for telling us about Fit Minds today – I’ve begun one of the workbooks with my Mom.  We both love crosswords and scrabble, so we had a great time doing the puzzles together.  It was fun and I can really see how this program stimulates the brain at the same time as bringing us closer to those we love.   Good luck with growing this program.