Every week Emma Van Horn faithfully heads to the swimming pool at Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She proudly displays her framed certificate recognizing her as a charter member of The Friends Swim Club. Emma lived near Lake Michigan when she was a child and at 46 years of age purchased a house with frontage on “The Big Lake.” Emma has always loved the beach and the water, and she sorely missed the joy of swimming; so did several of her friends in Clark's Special Care Unit.
Providentially, Clark's Dementia Services Coordinator is a former swim instructor. Chris Simons has a simple philosophy: “Just because you have dementia doesn't mean you can't have joy!” And moments of joy were what she intended to create—in the pool.
Simons first turned to the Internet in 2004 to see what others were doing in the pool. She found nothing, not even one swim program that was designed specifically for seniors with dementia. So, Simons created a multidisciplinary team at Clark to do some aquatic trailblazing. Team members talked to residents about the idea, conferred with family members, researched the best protec-tive briefs to use under swimsuits, devised plans for the locker room and the pool, and recruited staff to take the plunge.
Because people with dementia live in the moment, the goal of The Friends Swim Club is to make scores of joyful moments on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. It is often difficult to discern who is having more fun, the residents or the staff members. Amid the splashes and laughter, if you were not aware that many of the residents in the pool had dementia, you might not conclude that on your own.
At the beginning of each session, Simons often helps residents brush up on their swimming or floating technique. Some residents and staff members then meander to the attached hot tub. Others play water volleyball. Emma particularly enjoys water basketball, or as Simons dubs it, “Dunking with Emma.” Her technique includes bouncing above the water to make her bull's-eye short shot.
One week, Simons decided to up the activities ante and came equipped with water pistols for everyone. It was a hit—an especially poignant one for Emma, who is now also known as Emma the Markswoman. The title emanates from that fateful day when professors from Central Michigan University (CMU) visited Clark. Having heard about The Friends Swim Club, they asked to scientifically study the effectiveness of the program. (Coincidently, Emma attended CMU, where she earned a teaching degree.)
As the legend goes, the CMU professors were on the pool deck, dressed in street clothes and engrossed in professorial matters, when Emma took aim. Everyone learned that day that professors can scream and run with the best of them. More moments of joy all around…
While the CMU study is not yet completed, initial observations indicate that participants “displayed increased orientation, were more social and playful, and apparently free from pain.” The latter point is particularly important to Simons. One swim club member, Mary, smiles only when she is in the pool. Simons suspects that the buoyancy of the water allows Mary a freedom of movement that she no longer has on land. An added benefit is that the water's warm temperature relieves Mary's joint pain.
Simons has also noticed another interesting phenomenon. Some of the residents have compromised balance and depth perception. In order for them to walk with confidence in the pool, they hold on to flotation devices. When they are chasing a ball during a game of water volleyball or basketball, however, their balance and depth perception appear to be normal.
Other positive results spill out of the pool. Simons reports that some residents who normally need assistance with dressing are not only successfully dressing themselves, but they are also lending a hand to others. The time in the locker room creates camaraderie that is evolving into deeper, lasting friendships. The residents are also showing more interest in their appearance.
The Friends Swim Club was lauded by the Michigan Association of Homes and Services for the Aging as the 2005 Innovative Program of the Year. Simons was also invited to share information about the program at the 2006 Alzheimer's Association national conference in Atlanta.
The Friends Swim Club is successful on multiple levels. Most important, the residents experience genuine joy. Staff members also gain a sense of satisfaction not only from their engagement with residents, but also because they play an instrumental role in a program that is so clearly beneficial. Not surprisingly, the swim club roster is growing.
Simons is eager to see the final results of the CMU study. She believes that the scientific process will verify what she and the other members of the Clark staff see every week. In the meantime, come on in, the water's wonderful!
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