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Tuesday, March 26, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane seniors learn how juggling can improve brain, overall health

Grace Howard, 86, practices juggling during a class taught by Patti Sparks on June 10 at Fairwood Retirement Village in Mead. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Grace Howard, 86, practices juggling during a class taught by Patti Sparks on June 10 at Fairwood Retirement Village in Mead. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Imagine being told you could learn to juggle at any age – that the flexibility and mobility issues that often accompany aging aren’t barriers to tossing some colorful beanbags in the air and catching them.

Then what if you were told that juggling can improve brain power, concentration, dexterity, reaction time and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s?

That’s what residents of Fairwood Retirement Village were told on a recent afternoon.

Patty Sparks, 54, tossed beanbags, clubs and rings through the air. “I didn’t learn to juggle until I was 45,” she told the group gathered in the atrium. “Trust me. You can do this!”

Sparks may well be the pied piper of juggling in Spokane. She and her husband, Daniel, have organized after-school juggling clubs and preached the juggling gospel throughout the city.

Now, Sparks has taken her message to a new demographic – seniors.

She told the group gathered at Fairwood that juggling is a physical and mental challenge that causes crossover between both brain hemispheres. In addition, she said, “Muscle memory can improve even as we age.”

After demonstrating a few basic tricks like the Cascade, she handed out brightly-hued crocheted beanbags.

“It’s great exercise for arthritis – just squeezing the beanbags,” she said.

Sparks should know – she has arthritis in her hands.

Her doctor told her to take up knitting, crocheting or some kind of handiwork, so now she has a good reason to crochet the beanbags she uses in her presentations.

At Fairwood, she instructed participants to first try tossing the beanbag back and forth between their hands. When a smattering of bags hit the floor, she said, “You don’t have to throw it, even just passing it back and forth from hand to hand is beneficial. The crossover from right hand to left hand improves your brain.”

Indeed, a 2009 BBC News story reported, “Complex tasks such as juggling produce significant changes to the structure of the brain, according to scientists at Oxford University.”

What they didn’t report was how much fun juggling can be.

Participants grinned when Sparks ask them to place beanbags on their heads or tuck them under their chins. These simple activities improve muscle tone and balance.

Soon, she had them walking around the chairs with beanbags on their heads.

“This is great!” said Celia Garrison, 82, as she tossed a beanbag from one hand to the other and then popped it on her head.

Later, they gathered around a table and practiced tossing and catching. Juggling over a table is helpful for those who have a hard time bending or reaching to retrieve fallen items.

Sparks told the story of a resident at a different retirement community who’d contracted polio in 1930. He told her juggling was part of the therapy used to regain his muscle memory.

“Maybe the old-fashioned, tried-and-true things are the things we need to take look at,” she said.

And juggling is certainly old-fashioned. Sparks showed a series of photographs and drawings depicting juggling in ancient cultures around the world. “It’s an ancient art form practiced all over the world in all cultures. The oldest representation is in a tomb from 4,000 years ago in Egypt.”

While Sparks encourages people to stand while juggling because it improves circulation, juggling can be pursued by those unable to stand, as well.

At another venue, Sparks said all the participants were in wheelchairs, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm or willingness to try something new.

“Immediately their faces lit up because they could do something playful,” she said.

Congenital hip problems forced Sparks to give up running and the other active sports she loved, but juggling offered her a new challenge to master and a new passion to share.

“I can teach someone to juggle in five minutes, but it took me a couple of weeks to learn.” And in case you’re wondering, it isn’t true juggling unless more than two items are used. “You have to have more objects than hands,” she explained.

While juggling may not be a cure-all for the effects of aging, it certainly seemed to add joy and movement to the group gathered at Fairwood.

“As I get older there’s less that I can do, but I can still juggle,” Sparks said. “I can share what helped me with others.”

She grinned. “It’s so much fun. It takes you back to when you were a little kid.”

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