My Shot: For Alzheimer’s patients, golf trips highlight the week

October 26, 2010

Heading to the golf course with my Wednesday afternoon group highlights the week.

Many people feel that way about golfing with their buddies, but there’s something you should know about mine. They all have Alzheimer’s or another memory-impairing disease. And they constantly inspire me with their abilities and how golf touches their souls.

I lead the activities program at Silverado Senior Living in Belmont, Calif., where we care for people with all types of memory disorders. When our residents come to us, they usually have lost almost everything because of their disease: Recollection, emotional control, the ability to dress and feed themselves, and so often, long-time friends who no longer wish to associate with a person who now seems a stranger. Throughout our organization, we focus on restoring love, joy, relationships, and avocations to the memory impaired to overcome this loss and rekindle their spirits.

Golf is among the things that help the most.

Each week, eight or so of our residents work out on the putting green and driving range at nearby Deep Cliff Golf Course under the direction of teaching professional Gerry Benton. Gerry instructs us with the same techniques he uses with all students: alignment guides and wickets to roll the ball through on the green and gentle correction of swings at the range.

Members of our group watch and listen enthusiastically, helping each other and exclaiming that they feel wonderful, they feel alive. Gerry and I are constantly impressed by their stance, coordination, precision and technique. It is clear how much thought they put into what they do, eyeballing their line, using a club as a measuring tool, pausing momentarily before their shot.

Some are longtime golfers; others have never touched a club before. I am in the latter category. I am also the worst golfer in the bunch, even though sports have always been part of my life. My buddies’ memory impairment has not affected their ability to learn new skills from Gerry or enhance the abilities they already have. This fact gloriously refutes the general belief that people with Alzheimer’s can’t learn anything.

Golf also provides therapeutic physical benefits for balance and hand-eye coordination along with the vital emotional impact of increased self-esteem, sense of purpose and the thrill of accomplishment. This is crucial for the memory-impaired, for whom feelings of worthlessness and depression worsen their conditions.

Why does golf have so much more impact than many other sports on our residents? Of course, the physical demands make quite a few other games inaccessible. But having gone to Deep Cliff Golf Course with my group for two years, I now know it’s hard to put the game’s magic into words. However, when you see my buddies, you understand it. And you understand why sharing this magic with the memory-impaired matters.

Maryam Mahbod is director of resident engagement at Silverado Senior Living, an Alzheimer’s and memory-care community in Belmont, California.