Checkmating Alzheimer’s: Birmingham VAMC uses ‘brain games’ to promote sharp minds in older Veterans


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Almost every Saturday morning, volunteers visit the Birmingham, Alabama VA Medical Center (VAMC), setting up chessboards and sharing their passion for the game with older Veterans. They also bring tactile chess sets for the blind – comprised of chess pieces of varying shades and colors – to accommodate low-vision Veterans.

Shortly thereafter, those Veterans who know the rules begin playing, while at the other tables, volunteers teach new players the basics.

Chess, a classic “brain game” is a mentally stimulating activity that has been shown to promote brain health and may also decrease the risk of cognitive impairment.

Kevrek Frierson, a 70-year-old Marine Veteran who once guarded the U.S. Embassy in Denmark, was experiencing memory loss and some confusion. He also had vision problems and had to learn a whole new range of skills in the low-vision/blind rehabilitation program at the Birmingham VAMC’s Southeast Blind Rehab Center.

“I never learned to play chess and really had no interest,” Frierson said. “[But] if learning a new activity like chess can postpone mental decline, help my memory, and possibly improve the health of my brain – why not?”

Like so many others, he not only learned to play chess, but also became an enthusiastic ambassador for the game, sharing his newfound passion with other Veterans.

“All it took [was] someone who has patience to teach me the game and believe that I could do it, [even] after I was so skeptical,” said Frierson.

Through learning and playing these mind-strengthening games, Veterans are staying mentally stimulated and active. Studies have shown that modest exercise, a sensible diet, socializing and mental stimulation may minimize the risks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Studies have shown that older adults with hobbies that actively engage their brains are two times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. A recent Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology study also concluded brain games have lasting benefits for older adults and may delay cognitive decline.

Stacey Stephens, a blind rehab supervisor with the Birmingham VAMC, and an avid chess fan herself, said: “In a way, chess fits in with our formal curriculum. Veterans in the program have to focus and define [the problem], work past their frustration and [use] the strategies that we use in teaching life skills; they have to transfer those skills to their everyday lives. Chess teaches [you] to deal with challenges, focus and to think about your moves.”

You don’t have to be an expert or even an experienced teacher to help Veterans reap these benefits. Know the basic rules of the game you wish to teach, have a standard regulation playing set or two, and a passion to share the game with an older Veteran.


About the author: Michael Ciamarra is a World Chess Federation Instructor and U.S. Chess Federation advanced coach who specializes in teaching chess to older, blind and low-vision adults. For the past eight years, he has taught chess and other games from his Brain Games For Healthy Living: Checkmating Alzheimer’s program, exclusive to the Birmingham VAMC.

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Comments

  1. Susan Buchner    

    I would love to volunteer for you, recently I have returned home from a transition from military life to civilian and have had the privilege of working in a special place for alzichimers and dementia. How can I support the VA?

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