Word games are good medicine How a passion for doing crosswords ended up being the perfect therapy for my mother.

BecomingI don’t know why,” my mum said a few months ago, “I am crazy about crosswords. I can’t seem to stop.” This was by way of explanation for her request for more crossword books, yet more crossword books. Over the last few months I had already raided all the nearest bookshops for them. “I like word search books too,” she said.
“I love word games.”

Amma passed away exactly three weeks after her 85th birthday. Desperately scouring the bookshops for the gifts she liked best, I managed a major haul of word search books at our local Odyssey. When I presented them to her early morning on May 1, her smile was something to live for. She was delighted beyond those words she loved. She immediately squirrelled them away for later after she had burrowed her way through the pile of material on the table beside her chair.

And that’s exactly how countless people remember her after her passing, especially those who had made her acquaintance over the last few years. Finally released from her responsibilities of caring and cooking for a large family, she could devote time to her favourite pastime. She would sit comfortably in a large, maroon sofa, hunched over a page of crosswords or word searches. That’s the image impressed in people’s minds: a lovely but frail woman, reading, doing crosswords or, if she caught their eye as they passed by or came visiting, a warm smile.

A year ago, I bumped into a doctor-friend whom I hadn’t met in years. When I told her about Amma’s Parkinson’s and her hobby, she said, “That’s the best. The best medicine.” Certainly, even as her body slowed down, her mind remained sharp and active. Doing crosswords was great for her brain. In fact, in addition to all the books, the only gift she wanted, she tackled the puzzles in four separate newspapers as well. That’s pretty good exercise for the brain, alright.

Recently I stumbled upon an article in Lifehack in which Sumaiya Kabir writes that solving crossword puzzles has the potential to improve memory and brain function in older people. Amma was the perfect proof of this. She surely was saved from the greater ravages of the disease for a longer time because of her hobby.

How does doing crosswords help? Kabir’s research offers some explanations. Take Alzheimer’s, for example. Kabir says that according to Alzheimer’s Association, a “daily dose of crossword puzzles is a significant way to keep the brain active and sharp.” If the elderly person is in a position to get together with others of the same mindset, it’s even better: solving them in a group triggers bonding apart from being good for thinking and talking.

Also, it’s not only the young who grow their vocabulary; we do it all our lives. Besides, the activity helps focus and you forget what other problems you might have. I’ve seen my mum at it and I can vouch for this. She wouldn’t rest until she had found the answer: sometimes she would ask me — not that that was any help to her! — but most of the time the answer would suddenly dawn. These were her Eureka moments.

Talking about problems, solving crossword puzzles actually helps the mind think clearly. And that’s what we need to do if we are to solve the many issues we’re confronted with in life. As Kabir puts it so well, “if you can understand the pattern of a puzzle, you can easily understand the patterns of life.”

crossword-bookMost important of all, this is a fun way of dealing with boredom. Believe me, that’s the biggest challenge of old age. As my grandmother used to say, and my mother used to quote every now and then: You can manage anything in life but spending time in your old age is very difficult. My mother took her mother-in-law’s observation to heart and it helped. Apart from doing word puzzles, she would also read. Indeed, she was like a dog with a curly tail: I’ve finished this one, give me another book to read, another book to read!

What were some of the books she read recently? Well, there was Becoming by Michelle Obama, yes! She loved The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Ever the crusader for women’s rights, Amma identified with Sita’s questioning of Valmiki’s Ramayana in the novel. She found it difficult to read books that were hardbound or thick, and in this instance, both books were both of these things. But that didn’t prevent her from making a go at them. Becoming had a third issue: the font was tiny. However, Amma’s natural curiosity about people and their lives helped her set aside the handicap. She also enjoyed ­Twinkle Khanna’s Mrs Funnybones and giggled hysterically over Moni Mohsin’s tongue-in-cheek observations of Pakistani high society and politics in The Diary of a Social Butterfly and Return of the Butterfly.

The thing is, Amma’s love for books, reading and doing word puzzles meant that she didn’t need to be entertained. Of course, she loved it when people, especially people she felt comfortable with, visited. But as her hearing deteriorated, she found solace in her hobbies. This is not to say she was never bored or restless: she was, sometimes. But books and puzzles helped her tide over those difficult moments. That’s a big lesson Amma taught me, important enough to share with readers.

It’s never too late to begin to cultivate a happy relationship with reading and developing an interest in hobbies. For some it’s Sudoku, for others it’s music, for yet others it’s building model trains. Whatever it is, when the body grows weak, the fingers begin to tremble, it’s still possible to keep the mind active and the sooner we help ourselves in that direction, the better for us and for all those around. After all, nobody else can work your mind for you, even if they can help work our limbs. To a large extent, we need to exercise our brain ourselves.

I had never been tempted to attempt any of Amma’s word challenges while she was still with us. But after she died, I picked up a big, fat, yellow crossword book to see what exactly Amma had been up to. It was pretty damn tough. In fact, I couldn’t solve half the clues she had, apparently with ease. I picked up what I thought was a simpler collection. Again, I was no match for her. Now I shall take a shot at the word searches which, unfortunately, she hadn’t had the time to peruse. Maybe that will yield better results, but I’m not so sure. Still, better late than never! So, take a look at the crossword puzzle or Sudoku corner in tomorrow’s newspaper. Make a start. It will signal the beginning of a far better life.

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.

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