The 6 Pillars of a Healthy Brain

with Melissa Smith-Wilkinson &
Alexandra Villano
Alex of Hilarity for Charity (HFC) joins us to highlight true self-care. Understanding how you can’t do self-care without brain health-and she underscores what the most impactful pillar for brain health is for her and why. Learn how you can make a step toward making just one small change.
HFC was founded in 2012 by Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen, HFC is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to care for families facing this disease, educate young people about living a brain-healthy life, and activate the next generation of Alzheimer’s advocates.  In addition to providing caregiver respite, HFC organizes online support groups to build caregiver community and connectivity, engages young people across the country to become Alzheimer’s advocates, funds prevention-focused and brain-health research, and teaches people how to care for the health of their brains today, so they can reduce their risk tomorrow.
 
Check out all their free resources here: www.wearehfc.org

Melissa Smith

Hi and welcome to the Caregiver Wellness podcast. Today, we have a really absolutely wonderful guest, Alexandra Villano, who is the senior program director of strategy and development for Hilarity for Charity, now known as HFC. And I have been following along all of their work for quite some time. They were founded in 2012 by Seth Rogen and Laura Miller Rogen, you might know, as you know, a fairly well-known comedian, but most importantly, in my opinion, sorry, Seth, they have done incredible work and education of brain-healthy lifestyle, of getting the next generation of Alzheimer's advocates really giving them their marching orders, in addition to raising a ridiculous amount of money with his Netflix special, which really focused on awareness for Alzheimer's prevention care and of course, to bring laughter to something that doesn't appear to be very funny. Their website is WeAreHFC.Org. And you want to check them out because they have some of the most incredible programs going. And I mentioned this later on in the podcast, just at how community focused they are and supporting even small organizations like us. They really have done an excellent job of securing scientists, securing the pillars to brain health and really using all of these different platforms to create a message around Alzheimer's to reduce the stigma. And one of the most exciting programs that they have going is a grant respite care program, which we're going to talk a lot about not today, but in our Caregiver Wellness Retreat, which will be on October 2nd and 3rd. And you can just sign up for her session alone if you'd like to do that. And our website, of course, is Caregiver Wellness Retreat.com. So again, we're so honored to have her and I'm really excited for you to hear our conversation. And especially she has an acronym for me that I think you should hear. So stick around for that.

 

Melissa Smith

All right, so thank you so much for joining us today. We are live on Facebook, and if you are listening to us and our podcast of Caregiver Wellness Retreat podcast, we're really glad that you're here today. I am so excited and honored to be joined today by Alexandra with Hilarity For Charity, with love for you. Just to take a moment to tell us if you had to describe yourself in a sentence or two, how would you describe yourself?

 

Alexandra Villano

Oh, that's a good question. Well, I'll say the first thing that comes to mind is that I still have an inner Olivia Newton-John, which has most recently been honored by my 15-year-old daughter, who now loves Xanadu, strangely. So I think that speaks to, you know, I guess the you know, the inner performer. But I think really in most of my life, what I enjoy most is bringing people together and caring both sort of directly and at a distance, which is why I'm super excited to be here today and certainly thrilled to be a part of HFC in the work that we do.

 

Melissa Smith

Will you tell us, because you guys just changed, changed the name to HFC, joking about how I couldn't spell hilarity. Tell us a little bit about the foundation that you represent.

 

Alexandra Villano

Yeah. So thanks, Melissa for, again for having me today. Yeah. So HFC was formerly known as Hilarity for Charity. We rebranded earlier this year, and we are a national non-profit organization that was founded by actors, producers, comedians all-around talent Lauren Miller and Seth Rogen, really in response to Lauren's personal experience with Alzheimer's when her mother was diagnosed with early-onset at the age of fifty-five and Lauren was twenty-five. And so in response to her caregiver journey and her caregiver experience, she really wanted to raise awareness about Alzheimer's and help folks understand the caregiving journey, especially for young caregivers. And so out of that, they created an event, a large scale event that raised funds and awareness about Alzheimer's and established a respite care grant program, which we still run. And I can talk a little bit more about that, providing free in-home care, respite relief for family caregivers as well as online support groups for caregivers. We became our own five agency just three short years ago. But we've been around since 2012 and we've been operating those two core programs for many years now. And we've also developed a focus on brain health. And it's really important to us. We feel very strongly that we're on a mission to change the trajectory of this disease by raising awareness, engaging young people around their own brain health, as well as the brain health of caregivers and those who they're caring for. Because there's a lot of information and science right now that shows that there's a lot we can do to prevent cognitive decline.

 

Melissa Smith

I love it and I think so many questions and good things I want to talk about, but I'd love for us to arrive just a little bit so I know some of what you're going to be talking about is self-care. And one thing that I think there is this. This misnomer that we have to make some really radical changes and sometimes it's just a matter of pausing for a second and getting really present so that the next minute or the next hour is much more, you know, calming or not as agitating or, you know, as one thing as an as a caregiver we can are the person that we care for feeds off of our energy no matter what we say. But how we respond to things becomes an issue. So let's do let's just take a very simple breath together. And actually we're going to do that. If you have a room where you are, all I see is a really funky background. So I'll try. Oh, we're just we're just simply going to use our hands to breathe. So as you inhale and I'm going to lift my hands a little bit higher, I really would probably start them down lap. But you'll inhale and just lift your arms. So lift them. How far before they go? And then as you excel, you'll just lower your arms. And your eyes can be open or closed, actually, really like to do this with my eyes open, as if I can see everything in my space like a vista. So there's a sense of, you know, really being aware and present in my environment and then just lowering the arms as you exhale. And this is actually something that can be done with your person with dementia. So if you're listening to some of the forecasts we’re just breathing in and read palms as we breathe in and taking our time to lower our arms and sometimes I'll stretch them way up or reach them way down. So let's just pause here for a second and take a moment to notice. Notice what you notice may be in your face and jaw. Notice what you notice in your shoulders, maybe even in your throat or your chest. Also, as the pattern of your breath, it feels a little slower. Feeling a little less like you're worried about anything happening outside of where you are work.  Yeah, exactly.

 

Melissa Smith

We need those reminders and it's that's a lot of what we try and hold on to is around just the pause and breathwork really helps with that. It does.

 

Melissa Smith

And I love what you were sharing with me a little bit toward self-care. And I knew you had a slide a very fast you know.

 

Alexandra Villano

I just want to share this little nugget. This is something that we really heard in our care newsletter that goes out twice a month to our caregivers. This is from a great website called TinyBuddha.com. And they have these great little visuals with quotes. And so this one I just thought was very simple. But a great reminder about self-care and what it says is “Self-care isn't just drinking water and going to sleep early. Self-care is taking a break when things become overwhelming, saying no to things you do not want to do, allowing yourself to cry, asking for help from those around you, doing things that make you happy.” And part of what I like about that is I think as caregivers, we know there's two sides to the coin, right? Caregiving can be very stressful, it can be frustrating, it can be exhausting, and then in the same breath, it can be very satisfying and fulfilling and joyful. And as caregivers, I know, I think a lot of what folks experience a lot of the time is just mental calisthenics were always going, always Problem-Solving thinking ahead or trying to catch up. And so trying to manage really all those open tabs is sort of how I imagine it. Right, all the open tabs in our mind and keeping track of it. And so, you know, self-care, I think just in the simplest form is just kind of what we did a few moments ago is really just pausing, taking a breath, slowing down and allowing ourselves to also do that in a moment of caregiving, which I think can be a bit of a challenge sometimes when we're in the moment. And it's sometimes easy to get caught up in the frustration and the anger and the stress. And so we kind of. Does can feel that, and so if we can practice a little mindfulness to just pause, take that, you know, sort of inhale, exhale, you know, and then move on to the next thing is just something that we like to encourage as much as possible.

 

Melissa Smith

You know what I loved about when that quote actually in particular is that it, like you said, two sides of a coin. It mentioned crying and then doing the things that make you happy. And I think for some reason there's this whole, you know, forever we've been fed this in the grime culture of like pursuit of happiness like that, you know, and actually, I think the more experience you get as a caregiver, you realize you just want moments of either calm or not escalation or not, you know, so like understanding that we can that crying can be a release and bring you to that place or doing something that makes you happy. Right. Can bring you to that place as well. So I really appreciate that.

 

Alexandra Villano

Yeah. Yeah, go ahead. I was going to say, I think part of it, too, is recognizing when we say do things that make you happy, you know, I think it's recognizing could be something very simple. It could be look, just reading the one chapter in a book don't feel like you have to finish the book. Right. It's really about being gentle with our US. Do we get joy out of going through that catalog and just looking at pretty things or, you know, doing, you know, a Pinterest board or something? That's just sort of a healthy distraction. That just brings us those those those moments of reportage and fulfillment and kind of bringing us back to kind of the core of who we are.

 

Melissa Smith

Well, a lot of this we're going to chat with you. You're a guest along with home instead. And we're going to really dive in and at our caregiver wellness retreat on respin. What does that mean? And then also take a detour around the area of how to apply for the rest of the grants. But something that you talked about and I know that ties in with the six pillars that you have on your website, but what I'm really crazy excited about is, you know, having like a team of scientists. Is that right to you? Yeah, I'm like, like so excited about this, you've no idea. Like, I'm so excited, I'm shaking my camera, you know, but I, I think the power of like I know you had the author of The Brain recently. If anyone listening to this wants to go back to the House's Instagram page, there's a there is a video, a Facebook live of her interview of the author. And it's fantastic. Yeah, really, really important. But I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the pillars and how you guys are working toward community.

 

Alexandra Villano

Absolutely. This is really part of the work that super, super exciting for us. And, you know, we look forward to really growing this over the next several years. But yes. So we have on our website W-W you we are HFC dawg. You can go to our Science Advisory Board page and see the very impressive list of friends we have there who all represent really different aspects and kind of in this world of brain health. And so I pretty much the six pillars are represented there with our Science Advisory Board. So when we talk about the six pillars of brain health and, you know, I think different, you know, different organizations might refer to the pillars in different ways. But really what we're talking about is sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental or cognitive fitness and emotional well-being. And so on our website, we have a page on brain health and there'll be lots more to come over the next six months as we're working on it on a project that we're really excited to to be able to bring to folks where we'll be able to have a lot more information around these six pillars. But one of the things that we talk about is really it can be overwhelming to feel like you have to take on all of these new healthy habits to take care of our brains. And so we would just suggest picking starting with one, starting with one that feels the easiest to embrace at this moment in time for you. And probably as you look through the pillars, something will sort of come up pretty quickly for you. Like, yes, sleep like. That's what I really need to work on. And there's lots of information around why sleep is important, specifically around. And it's the same size and so we will be bringing a lot more of that, you know, those articles and that research and support in adopting brain-healthy habits, because it's not easy, especially when we're balancing so many things in our lives as caregivers. It's like, oh, God, right now I got to change up my grocery list. Now, start with one recipe, right? Just be easy on yourself and then you can build up over time. But this really embracing brain health, especially for Alzheimer's caregivers, is really, really critical. Well, there's a statistic out there, right, that that, you know, not only are women more at risk for Alzheimer's and dementia, but if you are a caregiver, your chances increase as well.

 

Melissa Smith

And so I think it's just so critical to understand the different functions of the brain. And it is all connected. There's nothing you can do to separate it. Right. So, you know, whatever you do to one part of your body is going to affect your brain and vice versa. It all communicates. So I'm so excited about your alliance and you're really moving in the science direction and science-based on really fact-based. Because really, when when you dive into research and research that's been tested, there's nothing really that can refute that. It's like, here's the facts. This is where you needed to do.

 

Alexandra Villano

And it's also about, you know, using that information to really have, you know, autonomy and agency over our own health. And what we would like to see at some point is that, you know, brain health is as widespread and well known in our daily vernacular as heart health, for example. It's not something that's as common in our conversations around health, and that is something that we are really on a mission to change over time.

 

Melissa Smith

Yeah, it's so important. And I'd love for you to mention so you probably don't know this, but you know, when when I sort of set this great and all, but I really like Lauren like again, so relate to her so much. I've been following for quite a while and you know, similar circumstances. My stepmother passed of early-onset and was diagnosed way too young and my dad was her caregiver for 10 years. And so, you know, I have that sort of really, really strong interest in watching how they're going through this, because she's significantly younger, you know, obviously, and as a caregiver and this is I think people don't realize and specifically what they're going through as far as a younger generation, having to take care of someone so young also. And it's and they think it's just not going to happen to me. And there's another statistic out there that says, well, if you're not a caregiver already, one day you will be right.

 

Alexandra Villano

Right? Absolutely. Absolutely. And a lot of what we're seeing are young caregivers coming to us for support with our support groups or for information or applying to our respite grant program or obviously, you know, not at all expecting to be in this position where they might just be early in their careers or maybe early, early with their own families and find themselves in a position of taking care of a parent or a loved one with Alzheimer's and dementia. And so there's sort of this, you know, one, I didn't expect to be a caregiver, you know, this young and to taking on managing a disease like Alzheimer's can be very, very overwhelming, as we all know.

 

Melissa Smith

Yeah, well, what I'd love to do to travel and speak about are a couple of maybe programs that you have going on that can support caregivers right now. And I think that that was my very indirect way of why I was so attracted to you guys. And I actually have participated in a few of the one off support groups, interest groups, and have been so impressed with the programming that you guys have put together. And it is all free that the unbelievable the amount of work. I don't think people realize because there's just something online and it's a tremendous amount to organize and put together. But I'd love for you to highlight a couple of things that you have ongoing that you feel like would be a good support for people.

 

Alexandra Villano

Sure. Absolutely. So we have free online support groups for caregivers and we were virtual even before covered in quarantine. And they think and the way that the group strong in ten-session cycles, most groups meet weekly. And so if and you said all you need to do is go to our website, there is a support page, a very brief form we ask you to fill out just for your availability and some of your preferences. And then we work to match you with a group as soon as possible. And I will say that most groups end up continuing. So we have many groups that have been running you for multiple cycles because they have, you know, formed a great bond. Our groups are facilitated by social workers, most of whom have experience in the caregiving space and or in the Alzheimer's dementia space. And through those support groups, we are available to offer additional support through the facilitators or if people contact HMRC directly, we're able to provide additional information. There are resources on our website. And as you mentioned, during sort of the quarantine time of covid, we began to offer weekly caregiver webinars. And so we did that through July. We'll probably pick up again in the fall and really just an opportunity for caregivers to, you know, take a break and gain information about one of those six pillars of brain health or some really nice communication mechanisms for communicating with their loved ones. All of those webinars actually are on our YouTube page. So if you go to YouTube, we are HFC. You'll see a lot of those caregiver webinars so you can watch them on your own time. So I encourage folks to do that as well. And then we also have this in-home respite care grant program. We operate that program in partnership with a home instead senior care. So they are the provider that brings the professional care into the home so the family caregiver can give a break, get a break. We have two types of respite grants. One is called a recharge grant. That is a grant of 50 hours that caregivers can use over a three month period of time in whatever way works for them. And then we have an extended care grant, which is twenty-five hours a week for six months. Unfortunately, we can't give out as many extended grants as we can recharge grants, but we accept applications monthly. And so we award our respite grants on a monthly basis as well. And that's part of the reason why we're in the business of fundraising so that we can offer more grants to more families in need who really, really need a break. Yeah, so good, I wanted to circle back, thank you for outlining that and I hope folks will go.

 

Melissa Smith

I know you mentioned your website is we are HFC org. And I'd love to circle back to the pillars. I'm curious, in your own life, is there a certain pillar that you focused on and seen a change over time in.

 

Alexandra Villano

Yeah, for sure. For me, the easiest thing to start with was nutrition and really embracing brain healthy foods. And so there's sort of, again, two sides to that coin. It's eliminating certain things and adding in certain things. And so one of our science advisory board members is Dr. Annie Fenn and she runs Brain Health Kitchen. She's amazing. Her website is amazing. Her webinars are amazing. So she's got a couple of webinars on our YouTube channel as well. And she just makes it very easy to incorporate it into your sort of daily diet. Science behind it and I and being that was part of what was really helpful in making some of these changes was really understanding, you know, why salmon and walnuts is something you want to be eating. And, you know, I really appreciate how she's very thorough in bringing the science into her work and her recipes. So I strongly encourage people to check that out as well.

 

Melissa Smith

So when people talk about making changes in nutrition, where I always go to because in terms of how do we make real structural change in our body or real changes from the inside out, we're not talking about like I just want my clothes to fit better, but we're talking about, like, how we feel a little better. When you made some of those changes, did you notice that or was it kind of slow go or. I'm just curious, because that's the key, I think.

 

Alexandra Villano

Yeah. And I'll say it takes you know, it definitely takes consistency and, you know, a little discipline, but I will say that I definitely felt more energized. I was you know, I don't know if it's connected, but sleeping got better, feeling less sort of heavy in a way like, you know, just feeling definitely more energized, feeling like there's more clarity. Look, it doesn't come without some sacrifices, but I also strongly believe in sort of feeding the soul once in a while. So, like, you know, you can't have, like, the chocolate cake. You can have the dark chocolate bar, 90 percent cocoa or whatever. But, you know, it's and look, you're also if you're bringing loved ones along with you, it can be a journey. If there's younger people in your home, sometimes it takes you know, it's a little bit harder to bring them along. But again, I will say. That, in my experience, having the site. Explaining why is really, really helpful is really helpful, and so I've employed that both, you know, with my you know, with my children, my immediate family, and then as well with you know, with my parents, I'm lucky to have a sister who is a registered dietitian. So we get to team up and really push these changes with, you know, with our parents. I love it.

Melissa Smith

Thank you for sharing that. I think I think that's such a key element is circling back to the very first thing that you mentioned is pick one little thing and also be kind to yourself in terms of consistency. And then what I really wanted people to hear was that with consistency, what kind of changes? What how are you going to feel? And then as we wrap up, you mentioned an acronym that talked about energy. Do you want to share that?

 

Alexandra Villano

So a little cheesy, but, you know, she feels good. So I think what's an easy thing to remember, like, we're bombarded with so much information and we're managing so much. Right. And so if we want to self-care, you know, one of the one way that we can think about it is ME time. And so I was thinking, OK, if we're going to practice more time, what does that mean? So the M is for mindfulness, that mindful moment, that mindful breathing meditation if that works for you. But what we did at the beginning of our conversation, taking that pause, being mindful, feeling the breath, trying to clear the mind, sort of one visualization that works really well for me. I got through Headspace, which is one of those meditation apps. And what they talk about is if you think about sort of the clear mind is a clear blue sky and the clouds are all of our competing thoughts. The clear blue sky is always there, even when the clouds are there. So it's you know, we can get there. It's just taking that mind for a moment to sort of work through that through the clouds and then the ease around energy energized what what can we do to recharge and refuel? And maybe it's that 15 minutes of just reading what you like to read or, you know, listening to that one song that really does it for you. But give yourself the gift of recharge in that meantime. So slowing down, taking the breath and then finding something that makes you happy brings you joy that you can sort of give you that energy for whatever lays ahead for the rest of your day.

 

Melissa Smith

So good thank you for sharing that. I think it's actually just a perfect way to end our conversation. I'm going to do a quick check to see if there were any questions, just comments of love, OK?

 

Alexandra Villano

No comments of love. And I encourage folks also on our website to sign up for our emails. We do a monthly newsletter and then we like I said, we do twice monthly focused newsletters for caregivers and on our website. We also have all of our past editions and care news. So that could be one of the things you do when you're doing me time.

 

Melissa Smith

Well, when I will say something about your newsletter and really about HFC and General and how I feel strongly that organizations like yours and mine should be acting and that's it together. Like we accomplish caregiver wellness and dementia awareness and brain health and all of this when we work together. What I noticed about your last newsletter was I think you had black neuro is what it's called, focuses on. Yeah. A new organization of specifically geared toward African-Americans and people of color and neuro health. And I just thought that was fantastic. And I noticed that you featured different organizations with no ulterior motive, no money exchanged. I mean, it's just like here's what our community is doing and I am so proud to be partnered with you because that's where you come from and that's how we're going to get through all of this being a great power in numbers.

 

Alexandra Villano

And this is no easy battle. There's no easy journey. And, you know, it's better to have friends along the way.

 

Melissa Smith

We're going to have our heads so that together. Thank you so much for your hard work. Thank you. I know what you've had to do to be here together today, so thank you for that.

 

Alexandra Villano

I want to go take some time now.

 

Melissa Smith

You know, I love it, but we’re just so grateful and I am so looking forward to having you also on October 2nd. Right. If you're listening this way after October 2nd, you can go back and find the replay. But I'm super excited that we're going to specifically talk about respite care and all the things you're doing there because this is an incredibly underserved area for our caregivers and for caregivers in general. They just do not have enough support. And so how can we expand on that conversation? So I'm very excited.

 

Melissa Smith

My pleasure.

 

Melissa Smith

Thank you so much for joining us today. And if you enjoyed this podcast, would you buy us a cup of coffee? You can find the link just where you found this podcast. And there should be click buy us a cup of coffee and it helps support our program. So we would love for you to get involved in that way. There are other ways to get involved. You can help us spread the word about our October 2nd and 3rd Caregiver Wellness Retreat, which HFC is a part of, as well as home instead. And they'll be discussing their grants for respite care. And we're going to really dive into that topic, which I'm really excited about because it is such a needed area for caregivers today. I hope that you enjoy this and we're excited to continue to welcome you back in subsequent podcast. May today be useful for you and may you find just one thing, just like Alex said today, just one thing, not a whole slew of the six pillars, but one thing that maybe resonated with you that you can be maybe curious about and consider implementing or consider giving it a try. I think that's one of the first steps. Thanks for joining us.

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