A long day at the beach. Hours spent splashing in the backyard pool. A refreshing morning swim.
Many of us have positive memories associated with swimming. But the activity isn’t solely for the young. In recent years, researchers and long-term care providers have begun to test how swimming can help those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Both groups have found that aquatic therapy has a number of benefits, like improved physical strength, decreased agitation—even the ability to access old memories.
At the university of Queensland in Australia, for example, researchers created a specialized swimming club for adults with dementia called Watermemories. They found that swimming helped the patients to remember positive experiences associated with water, like long days spent swimming with family and friends.
Participants not only recalled specific times they went swimming, but also the people they were swimming with.
“For example, they were at creeks and bomb-diving with their brothers, that type of thing. It’s usually really pleasant memories that come up,” Associate Professor Christine Neville told ABC in 2011.
The Australian study also found that swimming benefitted participants physically and emotionally. Swimmers were shown to be eating and sleeping better. They were also stronger and more agile in their day-to-day activities, and were more social overall.
A program at the Senior Living Communities (SLC) care facility in North Carolina showed similar results. In 2010, they started Waves, an aquatic therapy program meant to reduce physical and emotional symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Primary caregivers received training in how to guide residents through a series of gentle aerobic exercises. After training, they joined them in the pool. Recently, the program received the Best of the Best Award from the Assisted Living Federation of America.
As a result of participating in the swimming program routinely, residents experienced less stress and agitation, better sleep patterns, healthier appetites and stronger emotional well-being. The therapy also helped to curb habits like wandering.
Like the Australian research participants, residents at the North Carolina facility also showed improvement in their body strength. A number of participants who were originally unable to stand for long periods of time regained their ability to walk short distances after aquatic therapy.
Staff at the SLC hoped to use the therapy to help residents regain or maintain some of their independence—even something as simple as being strong enough to put on clothing unassisted—and reduce the amount of care they need in their everyday lives.
One SLC staff member wrote in a 2010 article: “If we can reduce [residents’] dependence on a caregiver by increasing their physical strength or minimizing anxiety, we can help our them maintain their dignity throughout an extremely challenging chapter of their lives.”
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