Fighting the Physical Effects of Age and Dementia


Mum is definitely slowing down, and it’s the physical stuff I notice the most. When she first moved to the rest home, Mum could walk confidently almost anywhere. She puttered around by herself down to the shops, off to the library and around the block for regular walks. Now, outside of her room, she can barely manage a few steps without reaching for the support of my arm. The woman who took up yoga in her fifties and practiced it religiously every day for twenty years now has the flexibility and spring of an abandoned sofa. Speaking of which, getting off the sofa is now a major operation, too. Mum counts, “One, two, three!” and I haul her up with both hands.

Suddenly, Mum seems to have lost all traces of aerobic fitness. A short stroll from my place to the corner store now seems like a half marathon. Mum stops after a few dozen steps to lean on a fence or admire some tiny flower. “How much further?” she asks. “I don't think I can go on.”

I’m a bit mystified by all this, because there’s so much happening. Some of it is obviously mental, while other parts are clearly physical. Over the past few years, Mum’s developed rheumatism in her knee. Medication lessens the pain, but the stiffness persists. The combination of the two has caused Mum to stop walking, which has seriously affected her physical fitness.

Then there’s the unsteadiness. My mother, who used to be quick, nimble and gardening-fit, is now positively tottery. Her shoes of choice are no longer sensible ones—“old lady” slingbacks with nylon socks and slippery heels. For some reason, she’s losing the sensation in her feet and, with it, her balance.

It’s a vicious circle that's spiraling downwards.

According to the research, physical exercise helps people who are living with dementia. A lot. An elevated heart rate increases blood flow to the brain, which minimizes cognitive symptoms and improves mood. Certainly some mood-enhancing activities wouldn't go amiss.

But life in a rest home doesn't encourage physical activity. There are trips out in the rest home van, but residents’ rooms are vacuumed and their beds made by staff. Meanwhile, residents spend long periods sitting and lying down.

When Mum phones me at work, bored and lonely, I used to suggest she went for a walk. These days Mum tells me she has no one to go with. It’s true. Without someone alongside to motivate and support her, Mum probably wouldn’t make it out the gate.

For Mum, her lack of fitness and energy is the thing she’s hating the most. So, I’m trying something new.

Every Saturday I swap her slingbacks for a pair of sneakers. Whatever we do now includes a fifteen minute walk. It’s compulsory.

These days I’m mostly working from home, so I’ve started taking breaks during the week to walk with Mum as well. Five minutes to drive to the rest home, five minutes to get her ready, then a 15-minute walk. I’m back at my desk in under an hour.

The process is interesting for both of us. At the start we feel lazy and unmotivated. Mum’s knee hurts, she’s tired and the weather’s not the best. “It’s a bit inclement,” mutters Mum as we set off. We walk a bit further and things improve. Mum’s knee is starting to loosen up, our bodies are getting pleasantly warm and our feet have found a slow rhythm.

“There’s nothing like a walk,” said Mum the other day, as we made our way back down the hill to the rest home. “It makes you feel like you've achieved something.”

Hallelujah to that.

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

Visit Saturdays with Mum

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Thanks Sarah for sharing your story. It’s great that you find time to help out your mother. The most important thing for seniors is to start exercising and socializing.Family Caregivers should take care of their loved one in his or her daily habits.

People can take time out from their work routine to assist seniors. A friendly conversation with your loved one can create a pleasant atmosphere.
I found that singing old military marching songs while doing PT with the therapist helped with my friend - some are quite funny, and they all have a nice get-up-and-go beat. We'd get a smiles from other residents & staff as we marched to Tipperary, or bungled our way through"Mr. ZipZipZip" & other WW1 songs (did you know "La Cucharacha was a military marching song? My friend was a history teacher/history buff of WW1). You can look on YouTube for ideas, & play them on your phone. Camp Songs & Boy/Girl Scout camping songs work, as do some '60s protest songs if you prefer those. Songs seem embedded deep, deep in the memory, & I vividly remember one time as we were rushing to get back to the SNF in a blustery wind when to our delight my friend started belting out "Button up your overcoat". It was difficult for him to talk, but he was aware of more than he could communicate, which seems to be common.
Sarah, my Mom has been diagnosed with "mild cognitive impairment". She is great, in that she is generally willing to try anything to help. We have worked up to 30 minute walks on most days. She enjoys it and doesn't like to miss a day, even though, sometimes she is very tired.

I believe it is one of the best things we can do for our loved ones, both physically and mentally.

Thanks for the post.