Sun high in the sky beaming down, opening the doors and walking into the cool air conditioning was a much welcomed respite from the hot and sunny July day. Various shades of purple colored the signs and walls as the smell of coffee filled the space. The resonating sound of laughter drew me further into the lobby where a diverse group of people gathered, talking among themselves. A slender woman with silver and brown hair flashed me a friendly smile and walked over. “Good morning!” she exclaims. At first, I think she is one of the spouses of the individuals with Early Stage Alzheimer’s attending the programs at the Alzheimer’s Association. Later I learned that her name is Cathy and she was diagnosed 5 years ago. She loves paddle boarding and spin class and volunteers to bring therapy dogs to patients in local hospitals.
This was the first, and certainly not the last, time I was taken aback by my own preconceived notions about individuals with Alzheimer’s.
Initially, I got involved with the Alzheimer’s Association as part of a group project for school. Myself and several other student physical therapists were tasked with learning about the needs of the Association and its Early Stage participants. Although we learn about the anatomy and pathology of Alzheimer’s and other dementias in school, most of us had little real world experience with the people affected by this condition. One of my classmates has a grandmother with advanced Alzheimer’s and I often found myself amazed at how effortlessly she interacted with these individuals. While I was eager to figure out how to best serve these people and the Association, it was challenging for me to figure out how to communicate with them. I was scared to offend them or underestimate their intelligence simply because they have a neurological diagnosis. As time went on, I discovered that these individuals are just the same as everyone else- they have passions and hobbies, they have fear and worries, and most importantly they have a need for support.
With the help of the wonderful staff at the Association, my classmates and I designed and piloted a Movement and Memory program. During our focus groups and interviews with the attendees of the Association and those who work there, we discovered that most people wanted a way to safely participate in exercise and learn more about its role in brain health. Not only does regular physical activity improve your mood and make you feel better but it also has profound effects on cognition!
From a retired Army nurse to a lawyer and even a poet, we found that there was a wide variety of interests and backgrounds of the people participating in this program. Admittedly, I found myself surprised by how many different kinds of people get Alzheimer’s. This definitely solidified the Association’s slogan that everyone has a brain and therefore everyone is at risk for Alzheimer’s. In order to address the diverse group of individuals, my classmates and I included several activities including yoga, tai chi, circuit training, and even a scavenger hunt. We were always amazed at the willingness of the people were to try these new exercises and how much they encouraged one another. At the beginning of the program we made a race to Move Around Houston and initially were skeptical that they would continue their activities at home. But week after week they came back with their activity trackers demonstrating their commitment.
I will always be grateful that I had this experience to work closely with the Alzheimer’s Association on this project. My classmates and I hope it will be inspiration for future programs as it is important for all individuals to be physically active, but especially for those with memory loss and other cognitive conditions. Meeting these participants and their very patient care partners on a weekly basis was a truly eye-opening experience for me. I believe everyone should volunteer with this population at some point so they have the privilege to get to know and learn from these incredible people.
About the Author: Brianna Durand is a 3rd year Doctor of Physical Therapy student at Texas Woman’s University in Houston. As a military brat, she has a love of travel, but her heart is nestled in Seattle. She enjoys weight lifting, yoga, cycling, and heartfelt discussions about changing the world.
Join us for the first session of Memory & Movement starting Wednesday, April 18.
Every Wednesday for 7 weeks, participants with early memory loss plus a family member or friend will have a fun opportunity to exercise and socialize.
To register or get more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800.272.3900.