Food for thought: Diet can help slow advance of Alzheimer’s disease

Virginia Health Services Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds is familiar with what dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can do to an individual and their family members.

VHS Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds presents at The Arbors.
VHS Director of Dining and Nutrition Viki Reynolds presents at The Arbors on April 1, 2022.

During a Lunch & Learn sponsored by the Peninsula Agency on Aging at The Arbors Independent Living, Reynolds put up a family photo where at least five women in the photo have Alzheimer’s.

“This is something near and dear to me,” Reynolds told the group of about 30 in The Arbors dining room.

Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth leading cause of death in adults 65 and older, according to the CDC. Reynolds described it as the destruction of the connections between brain cells by plaque, or protein, buildup. It causes memory loss, and can eventually lead to loss of functions of daily life.

Keep your mind sharp

During her talk, Reynolds offered tips to “use your knife and fork to sharpen your mind.”

Maintaining a healthy diet, and incorporating specific foods, can help stave off Alzheimer’s, she said.

The talk was paired with a buffet lunch from Arbors Chef Akira Johnston and team that featured several of the foods mentioned, including wild rice pilaf (grains), turkey bruschetta and grilled chicken (poultry), spinach salad with blueberries and strawberries (leafy greens and berries), and seafood soup (fish).

Reynolds is a registered dietitian, one of four on the Virginia Health Services team. She oversees the dining and nutritional programs throughout VHS.

Ways Reynolds said you can feed your brain are through:

  • Exercise, such as taking a walk.
  • Keep mind active, like doing crossword puzzles or watching Jeopardy.
  • Diet, incorporating specific foods into your week that have antioxidants and Omega 3s.
Foods to include in a “Mind Diet” are oats, whole grain bread, tree nuts such as walnuts, blueberries and leafy greens.

“Mind Diet”

The diet for your mind should include foods in their truest form – such as fresh strawberries and blueberries – so you get the most from their health benefits.

With a basket of recommended foods at her side, Reynolds walked the audience through the “Mind Diet.”

  • Green vegetables: two servings per day is recommended. (“As a dietitian, I have to tell you, you need more than that,” she says.)
  • Dark, leafy greens: two servings per day. Includes kale, dark leafy green lettuce. A vegetable such as broccoli is good, but you need a larger serving to get the same benefits.
  • Berries: five servings (half cup) a week. “It’s best to eat them raw,” Reynolds said. That includes blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries. They have antioxidants that help reduce inflammation.
  • Dried beans: three servings per week. They contain Omega 3s, which “promote healthy brain function.”
  • Whole grains: three servings per day. Includes brown rice, whole grain breads, oats and whole grain cereals.
  • Poultry: two to three times a week. Grilled chicken, turkey, etc.
  • Salmon: one serving per week. High in Omega 3s, which work to “decrease protein clumps that might be happening in the brain.”
  • Olive oil: 2 tablespoons a day. Extra virgin olive oil is less processed and has the most health benefits. While it doesn’t have a low smoke point, which makes it not as good to cook with, it can be used in salad dressings for those dark, leafy green and berry salads.
  • Nuts: five times a week “is encouraged.” Any type of tree nuts, such as walnuts and pecans, are good. Peanuts, which grow in the ground, have fewer nutritional benefits, but when unprocessed are still OK. Oils in the nuts are high in Omega 3s and antioxidants.

Shopping and other tips

Reynolds shared several tips to help you feed your “mind diet.”

At the grocery store

  • “Keep your cart on the outside lanes of the grocery store,” she said. “That’s where you’ll find the fresh produce, fresh meat, even some of the frozen items on ends. Inside aisles have the less healthy items, like boxed and canned goods that can contain high levels of sugar and sodium.”
  • Read the packages before purchasing to check for the nutritional benefits.
  • You’ll get the most benefits out of whole food items. If they are canned, or otherwise altered, you’ll lose nutritional benefits such as fiber, beta carotene, etc.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are good alternatives to raw, as they are frozen at their peak and can keep longer than fresh produce.

Nutritional thinking

  • Talk to a physician about adding certain foods to your diet if you are concerned it will react poorly with a prescribed medication.
  • Try to avoid red meat, bacon, and other items high in sodium or fat.
  • Smoothies can limit nutritional value, but “if someone has a cognitive issue, transform the food however you can to get these items into their diet.”

While concentrating on diet can be helpful, and in early stages, can help back up damage to memory in later stages, Reynolds said.

Healthwise, “you can’t lose with following something like this,” she said.

New chef energizes kitchen at The Arbors

The new chef at The Arbors Independent Living vibrates energy.

She’ll be the first to tell you she can’t sit still – she is either moving or asleep. There is no turning it off.

Chef Akira Johnston brings that energy into the kitchen at The Arbors every day, creating daily specials to enhance the month’s regular menu items. She brings that energy to working with the team in the kitchen, perfecting systems, plating and consistency.

She brings that energy to the dining room, chatting with the Residents about what they like, dislike and what they would like to see coming from the kitchen.

“I am always full of energy,” she said. “I don’t stop.”

Work in senior living

Chef Akira Johnston spent five years at Williamsburg Landing before leading the team at The Arbors Independent Living.

Before joining The Arbors in January, Johnston spent five years at Williamsburg Landing.

She has experience in independent living, assisted living and helped prepare meals for the nursing home at The Landing by pureeing or chopping food, whatever needed to be done to meet a Resident’s feeding and dietary needs.

Johnston is health conscious, and not just because of the environments she has worked in.

“In my free time, I’m very conscious about what I eat, about what I put in my body,” she said. “I try to eat clean and healthy. I want to give fresh fish, fresh vegetables. … I weave (nutritional factors) in by considering my personal diet too. I wouldn’t serve (the Residents) something I wouldn’t eat.”

She also is conscious of portion control, and keeping the menus high quality and appealing.

“At the end of the day, they’re ordering from this menu, not me,” she said.

She has to offer healthy, tasty options. Some well-received menu items so far have been fresh fish, coconut Thai curry and a salmon cake.

Johnston said she gets ideas from the Residents.

“I like to come out to talk to the Residents,” she said. “This has been my favorite crowd of people. I like building these relationships (and hearing their stories).”

Chef’s palate

Johnston said she doesn’t spend her off time cooking – “I am much better at mass production than a meal for two” – but loves to dine out.

Close up of the curry dish with a plateau of rice in the middle of the sauce.
One of Chef Akira’s new menu items is a Thai Chicken Coconut Curry that has been well-received by Residents at The Arbors.

“I like going out to eat,” she said. “I like trying new restaurants to see what’s out there: concepts, menu names, flavor profiles.”

Her favorite cuisine is Japanese.

“I love sushi,” she said. She may incorporate hibachi-style vegetables or chicken in a menu for The Arbors.

She also said she loves fine dining, eating at restaurants such as Ruth Chris. And sandwiches. She’s a big fan of a Wawa sandwich or a meal at Paul’s Deli in the New Town area of Williamsburg.

One of her favorite spots in Newport News is down the street from The Arbors at Thaijindesu Thai and Sushi Bar.

She travels for food. Johnston said she took a trip to Philadelphia just to compare cheesesteaks. She travels frequently to San Francisco to visit family and eat.

She compiles her ideas on a whiteboard in her office at The Arbors, taking menu inspiration from the board often.

“When it hits me, it gets added to the board,” she said.

She also stays active in her spare time, running, exercising and going to hear live music.

Getting her start

Chef Akira Johnston and her team showcase the March specials in the lobby of The Arbors.

Johnston, 29, didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. Growing up in Newport News, she attended Heritage High School, played sports and considered joining the military.

Life events took her in a different direction.

“I knew I liked food,” she said.

Johnston enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Virginia, earning her associate’s degree before joining the College Program at Walt Disney World.

What was supposed to be a three-month stint turned into several extensions that had her experience the culinary programs at Disney for a year.

She spent time at The Wave restaurant in The Contemporary Resort, the Coral Reef in EPCOT and working stations during the Food & Wine Festival.

The tasks were a little too repetitious for her – “I was too creative,” she said, to feel comfortable in the structure.

“I either had to take a full-time job there or come back home,” she said. “I wanted more. I didn’t want to stop myself right there. I came back here to finish school.”

She completed her bachelor’s degree with the Culinary Institute of Virginia.

Healthy lifestyle begins with ‘power-half hour’ of chair exercises

The Residents at The Arbors Independent Living are getting an assist in staying active.

VHS Rehabilitation tech Kim Kutscher leads a chair exercise class with a group of Residents daily in The Arbors community room.

“It’s a head-to-toe program with cardio,” she says. “A true power half-hour!”

Hamilton residents do leg lifts during chair exercise class

Hamilton residents do leg lifts during chair exercise class

Kutscher, who has been with Virginia Health Services for 17 years, also leads a class twice a week at The Hamilton Assisted Living in York County.

“It’s booming right now,” she said. “There’s quite a few who come to class on a regular basis.”

There are about 10 for Kutscher’s class at The Arbors on a recent weekday morning. Some arrive early to chat with her and get their pick of seats in the community room.

Kutscher said the benefit of group classes is a camaraderie develops among the participants. Some participants who have caregivers are sometimes assisted as they go through the exercises.

The Arbors Residents, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, hang onto their equipment: a theraband, ball and hand weights. Kutscher said some Residents use the equipment and exercise sheet she provides to continue their work on the weekends.

Residents at The Arbors lift an arm in the air with a hand weight.

Hand weights are a recent addition to chair exercise classes at The Arbors Independent Living.

If one-on-one therapy is needed, participants are encouraged to use VHS Rehab and VHS Home Health Care. Kutscher strictly provides group sessions, seeking the advice of VHS physical therapists about adding certain exercises to the program when needed.

She says that if someone is seated for long periods of time, even if they aren’t in class, they should focus on ankle and leg work “to keep them strengthening and prevent atrophy.” Muscles can get weak, making it difficult to move from a seated to a standing position.

Her class works from the feet up, all the way through finger movement, shoulder rolls and deep breaths to close out the class.

Long-time volunteers with Virginia Health Services find purpose in service

A near lifetime of community service for Martha and Jerry Dodson was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The contagion prevented the Dodsons from their usual rounds of facility-based volunteer activities, and for the most part suspended their annual 40-plus year tradition of being Santa and Mrs. Claus at nursing homes on the Peninsula.

The Dodsons are happy to be back into the swing of things again. It’s their most wonderful time of the year.

They have already presented gifts to Residents at The Newport, and have visits to The Huntington, The Hamilton and York on the books.

The Dodsons were some of the first volunteers back into Virginia Health Services’ facilities. They host crafts projects at The Huntington, resuming those visits in June.

Vaccinations, the use of PPE and changes to federal guidelines in regard to visitation in long-term care facilities have allowed VHS to welcome back volunteers.

Martha and Jerry Dodson

Martha and Jerry Dodson have volunteered at The Newport and Huntington for at least 10 years.

Volunteer hiatus

While the world paused, Martha said she “missed feeling like I had a purpose.” Jerry nodded along with the sentiment.

She tapped into her arts and crafts background and started creating greeting cards during the time away. Even while the distribution of them was on hold, she said she started to feel like she had a purpose again.

Martha and members from her recently created painting group and members of the Junior Women’s Club of Hilton Village – of which Jerry is an honorary member as well – created nearly 100 cards to share with Residents at the Huntington and other nursing facilities in the area.

Jerry Dodson speaks with a Resident

Jerry Dodson speaks to a Huntington Resident during craft time.

All of the VHS communities need volunteers to help with programs or to provide entertainment and fellowship to their Residents.

“Volunteering doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time or money,” Martha said.

There are all kinds of ways you can volunteer, whether it’s by creating a card, volunteering to help with a craft project, or making a phone call.

“We fill in the gaps,” Jerry said. “We had so many relatives – and that’s OK, we don’t have any children – because Residents thought we were family.”

Martha added, “You just develop relationships, connect with folks, you know?”

Long history of volunteering

The Dodsons have more than 40 years developing those connections on the Peninsula. In addition to their Santa and Mrs. Claus gigs, which take them to nursing homes from Williamsburg to York County, Newport News and Hampton, they have been hospital clowns and Jerry often visits as the Easter Bunny.

Martha Dodson does a craft with a resident at The Huntington

Martha Dodson and her husband Jerry resumed volunteering at The Huntington in June.

Martha and Jerry have volunteered at The Huntington and The Newport for at least 10 years. They also do deliveries with Meals on Wheels, Jerry tends the grounds and landscaping at their church, and Martha has spent several years volunteering with a first-grade class (when in session).

It’s a volunteer opportunity she landed as a result of the people she networked with while volunteering at The Huntington.

Before building access was restricted because of the pandemic, Martha hosted craft projects once a month at The Huntington, and, often, The Newport.

Jerry was on the original board for the Peninsula Agency on Aging (and still is on the membership board), and worked as a social worker and in Adult Protective Services for the City of Hampton before retiring.

Volunteering was ingrained in him at a young age. Jerry’s father was in Lions Club, and Jerry saw his parents volunteer at schools. The torch was passed, he said.

He and Martha met as members of the first four-year graduating class at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. That class celebrated its 50th anniversary over the summer.

The Dodsons encourage volunteering in a nursing and rehabilitation center.

“When (the Residents) have a visitor, it’s a bright spot during the day. And it might only be for 30 seconds,” Martha said.

The Residents appreciate having someone to talk to, Jerry said.

Volunteers needed

All of Virginia Health Services’ communities are rebuilding their volunteer programs.

Church and youth groups, school service organizations, Greek life and other college organizations, and individuals are needed to help facilitate activities and provide social interaction and support to Residents.

Applications are being accepted at all VHS facilities. Criminal background checks, PPD tests and proof of the COVID-19 vaccination are asked of those who volunteer in a building consistently more than 10 hours a week.

Contact the facility nearest you to apply and discuss options with the Activities team.

Volunteer locations

Coliseum Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 305 Marcella Road, Hampton, Virginia 23666

Phone: 757-827-8953

The Hamilton Assisted Living

Address: 113 Battle Road, Yorktown, Virginia 23692

Phone number: 757-243-8559

The Huntington Assisted Living

Address: 11143 Warwick Blvd., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-223-0888

James River Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 540 Aberthaw Ave., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-595-2273

Lancashire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 287 School St., Kilmarnock, Virginia 22482

Phone: 804-435-1684

The Newport Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 11141 Warwick Blvd., Newport News, Virginia 23601

Phone: 757-595-3733

Northampton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 1028 Topping Lane, Hampton, Virginia 23666

Phone: 757-826-4922

Walter Reed Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 7602 Meredith Drive, Gloucester Courthouse, Virginia 23061

Phone: 804-693-6503

York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Address: 113 Battle Road, Yorktown, Virginia 23692

Phone: 757-898-1491