The Power of Long-Term Memory (Part II)

Putting the “Memory” into “Memory Care”

We first met Tim and his father, Tom, when Tim told the story of what happened when he took his father up for a sight-seeing flight in a small plane. Tom was an ace dive bomber pilot with tours in WWII and Korea, and Tim knew that his dad’s military flying career and love of flying were still “etched deep in his heart,” despite the progression of Tom’s dementia. The moment his father boarded the plane, both his memory and flight skills revived remarkably, so much so that the pilot encouraged Tom to help him land the dual-control plane.

Today we’ll revisit Tim and Tom with another inspirational story about how person-centered care can reinvigorate memories and dramatically improve quality of life.

A Love of Swimming

Tom was a strong, avid swimmer with a lifelong love of water. When he retired from his law career in the early 1980s, Tom and his wife Alice began attending daytime adult swim sessions at a local high school. Alice enjoyed accompanying Tom to the pool, but after a few years, other retirement activities took her away from swimming. Tom continued his daytime swim for nearly 30 years.

In early 2012, Tom and Alice moved from the home where they raised their family (7 kids and Dida, a shepherd-lab mix) to a nearby retirement community, but Tom’s advancing dementia meant he had to live in the memory care unit of the facility, apart from his wife. Depressed by their separation, Tom began sinking deeper into mental fog and inactivity, gradually losing his physical functionality to the extent that he required a lift to get in and out of a pool, something the high school didn’t provide.

Meanwhile, Alice had begun attending a swim/exercise class at another senior facility within walking distance of her own, which lacked a pool. The invigorating exercise and convivial social environment of the class provided Alice with hours of fun and refreshing relaxation. The facility kept the water temperature toasty warm, and—most important to our story—the pool was equipped with a lift to enable use by a wider range of seniors.

When Tim learned about the lift, he knew that getting Tom into the water with Alice and her new friends would be the best thing for Tom’s body, mind, and spirit. Tim also knew that his dad’s increasing incomprehension and belligerence would make it difficult to convince him to try swimming in a new pool.

But Tom loved the water, and his wife had always been central to his quality of life, so it’s not surprising that his resistance vanished once Tim helped him understand that Alice would be in the pool with him.

Tom & Alice on their wedding day in 1952

The First Visit

Tim received permission from Tom’s physician, but that didn’t completely assuage his concern over their first visit to the new pool. After all, his father had progressive dementia, and not only was the facility foreign to him, and the pool unfamiliar, but he would be required to use a lift in front of a group of strangers. Granted, they were seniors as well, but the class was an exercise class, and not specifically meant for those with Alzheimer’s/dementia.

Tim’s fear over his father reaction was allayed almost instantly. Although Tom was especially disoriented that day, as soon as he entered the pool area and saw his wife in the water, his eyes widened and his whole aspect brightened with enthusiastic purpose. “Wherever he was, mentally, on any particular day, as soon as he got to the pool and saw my mom, his overall presence and mental acuity would change dramatically,” recalls Tim.

Tom and Alice Together

Whenever Tom joined the class, Alice waited in the pool at the bottom of the lift, and as soon as Tom was in the water, the two would share a quick kiss. After the kiss, Tom—who was gifted with the vocal range and pleasing tone of a classic Irish tenor—would sing a couple choruses of a familiar tune to his wife and the other members of the group, who quickly accepted him as a valued member. “He delighted them, and they delighted him,” says Tim.

Tim continued to take his dad swimming until less than 60 days before dementia took Tom’s life.

What You Can Do for Your Loved One

This story provides an inspiring example of how person-centered care can effectively revive memory for those living with Alzheimer’s/dementia. When a caregiver is able to assimilate a knowledge of the personal history and meaningful activities of the person in their care, they can design activities that provide the ultimately personal, positive experiences that stimulate memory.

Tim’s final comment about helping his father contains a thoughtful description of his own version of person-centered care:

“I tried to make it possible for him to do the things that made his heart smile.”

Tom & Alice in 2012

Sadly, Tom passed from dementia-related causes on March 2, 2014.

Take a look at our training that helps persons with dementia feel joy, fulfillment, love, and quality of life.

For a delightful illustrated version of this story, click here


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