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Post: Next Avenue: Want to learn new skills, keep your brain sharp and have fun? Volunteer.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

After I read Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” I was left with several compelling ideas. The most profound was: Do something different to help create new neural pathways which will help keep the old brain sizzling.

It didn’t matter whether it was carrying your coffee mug in the other hand, taking up a new language or tripping over your feet learning to play pickleball, mindfulness would improve mental acuity and help stave off memory loss. It would also add to a life that might have become a tad too routine (but that is my observation, not Dr. Gupta’s).

When I showed up on a Saturday morning last year at a local Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Habitat for Humanity construction site, Dr. Gupta wasn’t on my mind. I had simply responded when a woman friend had rallied a coterie of distaff older adults to join her Women Build construction team. We had bright fuchsia T-shirts reading: “As girls we played house, as Women we build them” and sporting our team logo, “We nailed it!” on the back.  

I arrived at the designated address, and I saw a rainbow of shirts on-site, but no other fuchsias; I didn’t know anyone else there. Gupta challenge No. 1: Remember everyone’s name. But that was not an issue because we each printed our name on a piece of duct tape and stuck it on our shirts.

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A role for everyone

The variously colored T-shirts, I soon learned, were shorthand for their wearer’s relationship with Habitat. Ms. Judy’s orange shirt was proudly emblazoned with the title “homeowner” indicating that this compact, well-designed, three bedroom, one-and-a-half bath cottage would soon be hers. She told me she was thrilled to be moving there from a cramped efficiency apartment.  

Several green “Partner” shirts were worn by homeowners-to-be, working to fulfill a requirement to invest 255 hours of sweat equity before qualifying as potential Habitat homeowners. A clutch of fresh-faced 20-somethings wore white or gray shirts with an AmeriCorps insignia; they were spending several months in Baton Rouge on FEMA projects.

Habitat regulars, much closer to my age, were clad in official, tan Habitat tees and our two supervisors sported mustard-colored shirts imprinted with “Staff.” During the course of the day, I came to believe their shirts been dyed in a solution of patience and good humor, in order to deal with novices like me. 

A passerby observing the dusty site would have seen Ms. Judy’s unfinished home surrounded by a diverse and motley crew — white, Black, young, old, female, male, preppy and scruffy — and heard the metallic pinging of hammers, the droning buzz of saws, and cheerful laughter and chatter among the construction crew. But no passerby could have detected the aura of goodwill and dedication that filled the air along with the swirls of dust and sawdust.  

Our job that day was to precision nail Hardie planks in careful overlap onto the walls of the small front porch. Since I begged off climbing a ladder, the supervisor assigned me to measure and cut the long boards which would span the expanses and fill spaces around doors and windows.

“Have you done this before?” he inquired as he waved toward a stack of planks and an electrical tool with a forbidding steel nose. Never, I replied, but he didn’t bat an eye and instructed his co-worker to teach me what to do: measure and mark planking using a professional steel square; create a straight line down the board by unspooling and twanging a magic red string called a chalk liner; operate the heavy electric shear specially designed to cut Hardie boards, both horizontally (difficult to follow the red line!) and vertically; and apply thick white base paint over the cut surfaces to protect them from weathering.  

We worked from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. with morning and lunch breaks, both times when we strangers mingled and chatted together. By quitting time, I’d almost gotten the hang of measuring and shearing the planks to spec; I’d even begun to slap white paint on the cut edges with panache, though admittedly I also decorated my arms and fuchsia T-shirt. And the next day my right arm was sore from the intensity of guiding the blade, the heft of the tool itself, and my fierce desire to get it right. 

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Building my skills

The second time I volunteered at Ms. Judy’s house, we were assigned to paint the exterior. The paint was a lovely dove gray, the brush as wide as my hand — not a Dr. Gupta exercise but rewarding, and it added new splashes of color to my T-shirt. Then we moved inside to paint with rollers and brushes. I was assigned the former — new to me but, again, I figured, in the interest of brain development, I would do my best.  

I was to rub the felt cylinder head at the end of a long pole back and forth in a wedge-shaped bin, to coat it with paint, then roll over a screen to remove the excess. I started the roller about 6 inches from the top of the wall and rolled down, being careful not to slather, but also not to apply the paint too thinly. It offered a learning curve, plus a physical and mental challenge, which was further extended when I was told to also roller paint the ceiling. Definitely Gupta-worthy as I tried not to slather, not to apply too thinly, keep paint droplets from my eyes and hair (unsuccessful), and use muscles (previously in repose) that were surely similar to those Michelangelo needed for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

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When I left the site that second day, I was even more paint splattered but equally pleased to have been part of a wonderful team with effective, patient leaders, helping Ms. Judy get closer to owning and living in her new home.  

And less altruistically, of course, I’d mindfully followed Dr. Gupta’s advice: wading in far beyond my skill set, working with demanding new tools, and revealing latent abilities. I was sure I’d built new neural pathways and had been completely and joyously out of my usual social environment. Enough so that I invited the three 20-somethings from AmeriCorps, plus their six pod-fellows I hadn’t met, to come to dinner.

This offered another kind of challenge which I hope would have pleased Dr. Gupta: it represented the first time since I’d downsized 2½ years ago when I had to plan and cook dinner for 10 people gathered around my table — and it was a fun evening!

Mary Ann Sternberg is a longtime freelance writer and nonfiction author who specializes in Louisiana history and culture as well as travel and personal essays. Her work has appeared in local, regional and national newspapers and magazines including NewYorker.com, Preservation, AARP magazine and the Dallas Morning News. She lives in Baton Rouge.   

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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