No one's claiming that swinging a golf club is a magic elixir for people suffering from dementia, but no one's denying a connection of some...

Share story

DALLAS — No one’s claiming that swinging a golf club is a magic elixir for people suffering from dementia, but no one’s denying a connection of some sort between the two. In his younger days, Arnold Radoff had always found that a round of golf let him escape from his day-to-day worries. There was nothing to match the sense of freedom he got from walking the fairways or the satisfaction he felt from sinking a long putt.

Now, those almost-forgotten emotions come rushing back to the 86-year-old retired pharmacist whenever he and other residents from the memory-support wing at the Legacy at Willow Bend in Plano, Texas, visit a nearby driving range.

“It brings back old times,” Radoff said as he took a swing on a recent outing. After pausing to watch his 100-yard drive come to a rest, he added, “Even if my shots don’t go as far anymore, I still get a kick out of this.”

Legacy president Michael Ellentuck, an avid golfer himself, came up with the idea for the outings so that residents with dementia could reconnect with an activity they enjoyed when they were younger.

About half of the Legacy’s memory-care residents once played golf, he estimated. And after several trips to the driving range, he’s pleased with the results of reintroducing the game to them.

“Some of our residents may not remember what they ate for breakfast, but they do recall playing golf 30 years ago,” Ellentuck said. “When they pick up a club, the game comes back to them, and they become their old selves for a while.”

They haven’t forgotten the mechanics or lost the technique, he said. For them, gripping a golf club is almost instinctive.

Such outings can benefit someone with dementia because they trigger thoughts of long-ago experiences and stimulate the brain, said Bert Hayslip, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who does memory research.

The rule of thumb with Alzheimer’s disease is “first in, last out,” he explained. Memories from early in life are the last to fade away.

“Playing golf can have a calming effect on patients,” Hayslip said. “Someone with Alzheimer’s lives in a world that’s turning stranger by the day. But then along comes something familiar. That can be reassuring and comforting.”

Sheila Campos, a memory-care specialist at the Legacy, said she has noticed that residents who have been golfing are less likely to become frustrated or agitated toward the end of the day, a common occurrence with dementia.

“It’s not just the physical activity, it’s also the pleasant memory it evokes,” she said.

Vera Courtney, an 85-year-old retired interior designer, was temperamental and hard to please right after she moved to the Legacy, staff members said. But she’s a changed woman now that she’s a regular on the golf outings.

She learned the game as the daughter of a military officer and played for much of her life. At the driving range, Courtney is known for her good nature and patience as she helps less experienced residents perfect their swings.

“It’s important to do what you enjoy, and I enjoy golf,” she said.

With the number of Americans suffering from dementia projected to nearly triple from 5.3 million today to 15 million by 2050, senior-living communities are searching for innovations to assist residents.

Besides golfing, communities that care for people with Alzheimer’s have begun to try other activities such as fishing expeditions or field trips to baseball games to cut through the fog of dementia.

“Activities that stimulate the brain are important because they may slow the progression of dementia for someone in the early stages,” said Sandra Chapman, director of the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health.

“A simple conversation that someone had just moments ago may not be remembered, but full-fledged physical experiences with sights, sounds and smells leave a more lasting imprint on the mind,” she said.

At a recent breakfast in the Legacy’s memory-support wing, 87-year-old retired surgeon Bernie Yollick relished talking about the straightaway tee shots he had during a group outing to the driving range.

“Not bad for a fellow who usually finished fourth in his foursome,” he said.

The golf dates are part of a larger initiative by the Legacy’s staff to reacquaint its Alzheimer’s residents with activities that meant something to them earlier in their lives, such as painting, sewing or even playing poker.

Identifying those pastimes can be a challenge for caregivers, Campos said, since residents may not remember the activities on their own. Families sometimes can clue the staff in on old hobbies. But the discoveries also happen by chance. Once, the staff put poker chips in front of a few residents, who turned into card sharps before the staff’s eyes.

At Silverado Senior Living at Valley Ranch in Irving, Texas, the managers and caregivers regularly take residents to a driving range, the zoo, a lake, the circus, Texas Rangers games and, recently, a casino in Oklahoma.

“What stirs a memory in one person may do nothing for another,” said administrator Rachael Kleczkowski. “So we try a lot of different things. That way, we eventually hit on an activity that has meaning for each resident.”

The biweekly trips to Lake Lewisville or Lake Grapevine have been especially popular with the one-time fishermen at Silverado, she said. Like golf, the fishing expeditions help retrieve long-lost thoughts and emotions.

“It’s a chance for our guys just to be guys again and relive a time of their lives when everything was less confusing to them,” Kleczkowski said.

Lately, the trips have developed into a competition with the fishermen from Silverado’s memory-care community in Plano. The winners take home their catch, and with help from their community’s chef, they clean it, fry it and savor their victory.

“It’s all about living in the moment around here,” Kleczkowski said. “If we can rekindle a memory or emotion, even briefly, we’ve done well.”