Helen*, 78, is one of more than 46 million people worldwide who live with dementia—a number that exceeds the entire population of Spain and is expected to increase to 131.5 million by 2050.
“Dementia is not an on-off switch. It’s a dimmer switch,” said Helen’s son, Matt*. “In some cases, it is a daily dimmer switch. She can start off the day lucid and engaged and alert, but a few hours later she might be less aware of her surroundings and experiences and need more care.”
Some days are better than others, he said, and some weeks are better than others.
“Dementia is nonlinear and inconsistent.”
Dementia is nonlinear and inconsistent.
One enduring way that Helen – with help from Matt and other family members – brightens that dimmer switch is to play golf.
“Golf is probably the most essential part of her pleasure in life; she loves golf, she lives for it,” Matt said. “She smiles when she’s golfing. She doesn’t smile as much when she’s not golfing. She’s thrilled … at ease, stress-free. She’s not thinking about her health or her mind or her future; she is wholly in the present.”
She’s not thinking about her health or her mind or her future [when golfing]; she is wholly in the present.
No wonder, given she’s golfed for much of her life. In fact, she even golfed with her own mother, who lived with dementia for 20 to 25 years before dying at 95, Matt said.
“My mother had experience with dementia before it showed up on her doorstep.”
Helen’s story fits with the results of a recent study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, one of the first efforts to explore how golf could enhance the psychological and social well-being of individuals with dementia. By definition, dementia is not a specific disease but an overall term that describes symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.
Through interviews and focus groups with individuals with dementia, caregivers and golf club staff, researchers identified several common themes related to well-being. These included positive emotional states, respite, losing the “dementia” label, friendship/camaraderie and the potential to improve relationships. Notably, many of these benefits applied not only to the individuals with dementia but also to the caregivers and staff.
…many of these benefits applied not only to the individuals with dementia but also to the caregivers and [golf club] staff.
Researchers acknowledge this was a preliminary study using a small group of participants, so more studies are needed to further explore golf’s link to well-being for those with dementia and for the older adult population at large.
“Still, this preliminary research demonstrates that golf may be one possible avenue to aging well,” said the Mather Institute, which gave the researchers an Innovative Research in Aging Award for their work.
This is certainly the case for Helen.
“My mother tends to be anxious and to worry a lot. [But] she has no worries on the golf course,” Matt said. “Dementia, in a sense, enables that. She doesn’t remember a bad shot; she doesn’t get upset with herself if she does something poorly. If she has a bad hole, she doesn’t have any idea. It is always about what is in front, never what is behind.”
Helen – who does not walk on her own – uses a golf cart. And during golf season, she golfs once a week in a senior women’s league.
Certain elements about golf she can’t do, of course – such as keeping her own score, remembering which club to use for distance and always finding her ball – so golfing with someone else is necessary.
“I’m kind of like her caddie when we play,” Matt said. “I pick her club, I keep track of her score, I find her ball, point her in the right direction. She loves it.”
The ‘best medicine’ for dementia: Golfing advice for caregivers
Based on experience with his mother, Matt offers five tips for golfing with a loved one with dementia:
- Stay in the present.
“The more I stay in the present with her, the better, which is one of the great things about golf. If we see a bald eagle flying overhead, we spend time looking at the eagle. Just being outside, being in a sport that requires staying in the moment, it is the best medicine for dementia. Otherwise, she gets lost in her mind; that’s why I think of the dimmer switch—her mind darkens. Golf keeps you and helps you stay in the present, stay in the moment.”
- Don’t take it personally.
“Never take any of this personally. She will say, ‘I didn’t have two shots,’ but I know she did. She’ll argue, ‘I didn’t hit it over there,’ even though I know she did. Try not to get into a direct argument.”
- Encourage human interaction.
Introduce your loved one to engage with “everyone you come across on the golf course,” Matt said, whether it’s getting paired up with other golfers to play a round or just a quick greeting. “Human interaction is vital.”
- Celebrate the small things.
Even a two-foot putt is cause for a celebration. “Keep her focused on the really fun moments.”
- Take care of yourself, too.
“I make sure I’m taking care of myself. I have breaks, I make sure that I’m not getting lost in her dementia, and I’m keeping a healthy perspective.”
*Last names omitted to retain privacy.