DU seniors institute marks one-year anniversary with expanded programming and accolades
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Note: Originally published in the October 2017 issue of the Washington Park Profile.
One might not know it, but tucked away on the fifth floor of the University of Denver’s relatively new Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering & Computer Science building is a senior-citizen-focused institute making big waves both locally and internationally. “The Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging opened its doors in its new location in August 2016 and was up and running by about October,” says Briony Catlow, grant writer and community liaison for the Institute. In that time, local community engagement has dramatically expanded.
“We have a mailing list of about 7,000 people, there were 250 attendees at our opening in October 2016 and when we do have larger events, we’re usually restricted by space,” not interest, Catlow says.
Jiminy Wicket Founder James Creasey and Sophia watch Sophia's ball advance towards the first wicket at an intergenerational game of croquet played at the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging Sept. 21. Photo by Haines Eason.
As for smaller happenings and ways to engage, the Institute offers a weekly tai chi class attended by roughly 20 locals—sessions are 1:00p.m.-2:00p.m., most Fridays—and throughout September a series of events, talks and lectures was offered as well.
On Sept. 16, the institute sponsored a team to participate in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s, Sept. 21 they hosted “Mind the Gap 101: A Healthy Aging Event,” which centered around an intergenerational game of croquet organized by James Creasey, founder of Jiminy Wicket, a nonprofit that arranges such events regularly. Other events included a Sept. 28 lecture by DU Professor Emeritus John Sladek, entitled “Recent Research and Clinical Applications for Parkinson’s Disease,” and a Sept. 30 Alzheimer’s community engagement event entitled, “Reducing Your Risk for Alzheimer’s.” For more information on events as they are scheduled, visit the institute's events page.
"This institute is very, very special. It’s beyond anything I would have expected. This has potential, in so many ways, for a lot of people. It can open the eyes of younger people, it can give opportunity for fun on the part of all people. I’ve made so many friends here…"
The Institute’s events and activities are not meant to serve seniors in isolation, however—there is an overt focus on connecting seniors with younger generations, and that focus manifests in programming, such as an emerging intergenerational club. Through the club, DU students will be paired with local seniors with the aim of both the student and senior benefitting from companionship.
There are already several local seniors engaged with the Institute, one of whom has been involved with the school for decades.
“I really love it here very much,” says Bernie Spilka, Ph.D., community resident, former professor at the university and regular institute attendee, speaking of DU in general and the Institute specifically. “I have observed an improvement as a university to an unbelievable degree. I put it mildly; it’s gotten better and better and better. This institute is very, very special. It’s beyond anything I would have expected. This has potential, in so many ways, for a lot of people. It can open the eyes of younger people, it can give opportunity for fun on the part of all people. I’ve made so many friends here…”
While Dr. Spilka and many other seniors are engaging with the Institute’s outward-facing programming, behind the scenes, the Institute operates a state-of-the-art research lab with a dedicated focus on the mental health, mental aging, concussions and diseases which affect the aging mind, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Assistant Research Professor Daniel Paredes, Ph.D., left, and Dr. Bernie Spilka discussing fossils. Dr. Spilka is a fixture at the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging and has been a DU regular for decades. Photo by Haines Eason.
Research at the Institute specifically focuses on movement disorders and aging, cognition and aging, gerontechnology (technology focused on aging), intergenerational programming and workforce development, and lab staff are leaders in these areas.
“Since we’ve been in this building, Lotta Granholm-Bentley, our executive director, has received a grant from the national institute on aging, which is focused on the detection of Alzheimer’s Disease in Down Syndrome,” Catlow says. She adds that DU itself is funding the Institute through its Impact 2025 program to explore early signs of cognitive decline and how that impacts financial security and planning. There is a long-term goal to turn the research into something financial institutions could use to help seniors protect themselves as they continue to age.
“Interestingly, peak intellectual age is 53 years old,” Catlow says. “So, basically, everyone planning is over that age, whether it’s making decisions about what to do with the money,” or how to manage the money. “Generally, people advising seniors are over that age too, so there’s a lot of concern and planning about how that can be taken care of best. There’s legal aspects and there’s the competence aspect as well.”
Catlow says the Impact 2025 grant will fund an assessment of the current tools employed to assess early cognitive decline—the research and testing that’s been done thus far to detect cognitive decline in regards to financial decision making. Once best methods and practices have been identified, the next step is to test a small population of adults and then develop a technology-based tool off the results that will ideally be used by leading investment firms to ensure the best investment outcomes for seniors. Catlow says the project will take three years to complete.
Dr. Eric Hamlett in his lab at the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging. Dr. Hamlett studies Alzheimer's and credits early memories of his grandmother with his choice of career. Photo by Haines Eason.
While it might be a common assumption that researchers in general are a cold, analytical lot, that assumption doesn’t hold water for Eric Hamlett, a newly minted Ph.D. in neuroscience, currently conducting Alzheimer’s research at the institute. For Eric, his decision to pursue a career researching the elderly and the mental challenges and ailments they face has roots in his early life.
“I grew up with my grandmother, her name was Lizzie May. We lived in a farming community in North Carolina… She lived to be 94 years old, and she lived with me and my father until I was 16. I grew up with someone who was born in 1899, and that gave me an interesting perspective and no doubt had an influence on how I choose to live my life.
“The reason I chose to conduct research instead of going down a more clinical/medical path was I believe our ability to make changes in medical settings needs to be enhanced from a research perspective. I love working with people, I’m a people person, but I feel I have a strong impact working in the lab to explore the possibilities that have yet to be explored.”
While Hamlett is in the lab working to better understand Alzheimer’s, others are working with seniors directly. On the horizon: an intergenerational project with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) to be led by Leslie Hasche of DU’s Department of Social Work. Hasche and colleagues will conduct a senior mentor program involving seniors from JCC and DU students.
“These programs benefit both the young people and the seniors because the youth get so much wisdom … and the seniors a sense of purpose,” Catlow says. “These [seniors] are highly qualified individuals offering their advice for free just to help students.”
Catlow says the JCC partnership program should begin in October. For more information, click here.