Woodland Terrace residents Pat Frew, left, and Sandy Kirkland take part in aquatics exercise class at the center's swimming pool. Photograph by Thomas Goldsmith
Woodland Terrace residents Pat Frew, left, and Sandy Kirkland take part in aquatics exercise class for people with memory problems at the Raleigh center's swimming pool. Photo credit by Thomas Goldsmith

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By Thomas Goldsmith

Two women in their 80s and another in her 70s and walked, jogged and practiced ballet moves recently in a Cary assisted living center’s covered swimming pool.

The women, who have neurocognitive disorders, did their exercises as late autumn sun lit the glass-roofed pool at Woodland Terrace. Sara Broadbent, 76, along with Pat Frew and Sandy Kirkland, both 83, hit the water for benefits that include heart rates that rise during the workout, improved balance, and greater mobility and strength, Woodland Terrace therapy staff said.

In what could be an even more important aspect, the time in the pool was fun for the women.

Michele Cox, assistant activities director at Woodland Terrace, encourages resident Pat Frew to enter the swimming pool for aquatics exercise class. Photo: Thomas Goldsmith

“This has to do with providing quality of life,” said Michele Cox, assistant activities director at the center. “This doesn’t treat dementia, but there are case studies that show [exercise] does improve cognition if it’s repeated. It elevates mood.”

The women, who are sometimes joined by a male resident, are taking part in an aquatic therapy pilot at Woodland Terrace. There’s no extra charge for the activity, but that could change if it’s adopted for more residents.

Woodland Terrace assistant activities director Michele Cox helps as resident Pat Frew gets into the swimming pool for aquatics exercise class. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

The labor-intensive sessions aren’t a simple matter, as the women often require persuasion before donning suits at the center and entering the adjoining pool.

No one is forced to swim if adamantly opposed, but sometimes fear takes hold even at the last minute.

“It’s torture,” Frew said, just before descending the steps of the pool with an aide’s help.

“She doesn’t like the cold,” said Jackie Green, dementia care coordinator at the center.

Woodland Terrace residents Pat Frew, left, and Sandy Kirkland take part in aquatics exercise class at the center’s swimming pool. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

However, former swimming instructor Frew soon got with the program and enjoyed walking, jogging and performing dance moves in the warm water with Broadbent and Kirkland.

“They feel able to do things,” Green said. “It gives their lives value, because they have a purpose.”

Cox supervised the session and led exercises along with volunteer Allison Bailey, an aquatics instructor and personal trainer.

“They relax, definitely”

“I’ve always loved swimming,” Kirkland said after leaving the pool.

As in the conversation of many people diagnosed with dementia, her thought processes can be hard to follow.

“So many things are going through my head now,” she said.

Volunteer trainer Allison Bailey, left, works with Sandy Kirkland, center, and Pat Frew, during an aquatics exercise class at Woodland Terrace assisted living center in Cary. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith.

The water’s buoyancy allows the aquatics participants to build balance and strength without the risk of falling as they exercise.

“They can pick up that knee and open up the hip, which is difficult on land,” Bailey said, lifting her right knee and turning her leg to the side in illustration.

Woodland Terrace is a private-pay facility with a secure unit for people with neurocognitive disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Providing activities for residents is a requirement for adult care homes under state law, but facilities that serve Medicaid-financed residents have sometimes received sanctions for not meeting that goal.

At Woodland, helping residents enjoy time with friends is key to the program. It’s a break from the stress and anxiety that often accompanies daily life for people with dementia.

“You can’t be real serious when you’re in the pool,” Bailey said. “They relax, definitely, once they get in. They know the pool’s a playful place.”

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What’s the evidence?

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, some scientific literature supports the benefits of aquatic exercise for older people, including those with dementia.

The authors of “Watermemories: A Swimming Club for Adults with Dementia” wrote in 2013 in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing:

“Physical exercise not only improves the functional capacity of people with dementia but also has significant effects on other aspects of quality of life such as sleep, appetite, behavioral and psychological symptoms, depression, and falls. Additionally, exercise can improve a person’s overall sense of well-being and positively enhance their sociability.”

Dr. Bruce Becker, a chief advocate of the benefits of aquatic therapy, wrote on the topic in 2009 in PM&R, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “Aquatic exercise has been successfully used to improve balance and coordination in older individuals, who face an increased risk of falling.”

Teresa Sawyer, wellness director at Woodland Terrace, has trained with Stacy Lynch, an Arizona therapist whose methods are available at  www.inertiatherapy.com

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...