Max Wallack of Natick is one of 10 teens from across the country who just received a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award. The $36,000 prize recognized him as an exceptional teen role model for his help in repairing the world. I spoke with the amazing 17-year-old about the non-profit he’s founded, Puzzles to Remember, that provides therapy for Alzheimer’s disease patients.
Congratulations on your award! Tell me about Puzzles to Remember.
Puzzles to Remember is a 501(c)(3) organization that I founded shortly after the death of my great-grandmother. She lived with my family and she had Alzheimer’s disease. I was one of her caregivers. As I read about Alzheimer’s, I learned that patients who remained cognitively active with artistic endeavors could sometimes delay the point at which they were no longer functional in society, so I began collecting and distributing puzzles to facilities caring for Alzheimer’s patients. Soon I realized the dearth of puzzles best suited for Alzheimer’s patients; they needed puzzles with low piece count, large piece size, bright colors and memory-provoking themes. I contacted a puzzle manufacturer, Springbok Puzzles in Missouri, and together we produced a therapeutic line of puzzles. To date, Puzzles to Remember has distributed over 25,400 puzzles to over 2,100 facilities around the world.
And you’ve just written a book? What’s it about?
The book is “Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? An Explanation of Alzheimer’s Disease to Children.” So many children today have to deal with family members who have Alzheimer’s disease. I felt it was important for them to understand this disease in order to continue to have loving relationships with their family members. I also wanted to provide children with some helpful coping mechanisms for interacting with Alzheimer’s patients. I noticed that other books written for children on this subject are dark and sad. I wanted to create a book that explained the disease but still remained upbeat, hopeful and even a little humorous. The response to the book has been excellent; it has even been ordered by a company as far away as Singapore for use there with school children.
You must be one of the youngest people at Boston University, and your interest is in our oldest population. What got you interested in senior care?
I was always very interested in science. When I was very young I entered numerous invention contests and won some at the national level. My experiences with my great-grandmother led me to apply my interests to Alzheimer’s disease. In 2009, Puzzles to Remember won an award from the Build-a-Bear Workshop, and, being a big believer in micro-philanthropy, I donated this award to the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center. I was invited there to present the check personally. That’s when I first met some of the physicians and researchers with whom I now work. I felt right away that I could achieve a lot in that environment. Last week, the first scientific research article that I coauthored was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, and I am preparing several other articles. I plan to become a geriatric psychiatrist working with Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
Can you recommend a game or puzzle that will benefit those of any age?
What seems most beneficial is developing a new and different skill from what one is accustomed to. For instance, learning a new language is beneficial. Learning to play the violin would be beneficial to most people, but less beneficial to those who already play several instruments. The goal is to create new and additional neural pathways that may serve as a “reserve” to protect our mental abilities. And, of course, social interaction is extremely important to staying healthy.
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!
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