Weekly musings, 10/21/17: Physical activity and dementia

When I was a a very new, very inexperienced personal trainer, fresh out of college, one of my first clients was a man named Joe. Joe was kind, personable, and in his late 70s. He arrived for our sessions more or less on time and was always clean and well kept.

Our first six months together, occasionally Joe would seem a little forgetful, but I didn’t think much of it. He was, after all, older, and forgetfulness happens. 

As time wore on, the forgetfulness turned into something else, something involving the cessation of driving, a care giver, and a vacancy in his eyes that began to exist more often than it didn’t.

During that time, I was forced to evaluate my communication skills. I had to be clear, concise, and I needed to offer easy instructions that required little interpretation. “Face the warning sign,” I would say, when I wanted him to face the equipment. “Turn and face the ocean,” I would say, when I wanted him to move in a different direction.

I learned that if he thought it was Christmas time and the hanging pot near the clock was a wreath then by golly, it was a wreath. Who cared that it was July. I would carry on conversations with him about the holidays of his past, listening as he spoke of his time on the east coast with his family. When he told me he had to leave early so he could be the best man in his best friend’s wedding, I learned about his friend from Yale, the one who bunked with him all four years.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are devastating diseases. While physical activity, specifically aerobic exercise, may play role in preserving cognitive function,* exercise does not appear to slow the onset once it manifests.**

One of our last sessions together, Joe, who hadn’t recognized me in months, looked at me and said, “are you going home to Napa this Christmas?” I was shocked he remembered anything about my family. “Yes,” I responded. “It’s lovely there this time of year.”

And just like that he was gone, singing old songs and staring out into the water. He died a month later.

There are so many types of exercise, it’s easy to get bogged down with what’s right or wrong, but don’t undervalue the benefits of a 30 minute walk, every day. It’s not only good for your body, it may very well be good for your mind.