Walking is great for people with memory loss to help improve cognitive functions. Several of the neurologists we have seen have advised us to work on getting Papa started on a light exercise and walking program to help slow his memory decline. In addition to his various puzzles and other thought activities, they have explained that walking or other forms of physical exercise will help to improve brain health by increasing the blood flow and transporting more oxygen to the brain. Consistent exercise should help form new neuron connections and hopefully slow the brain from any further atrophy. Although Papa talks as if it were a short time ago, it has been over twenty years since he would walk for hours on the streets of Sun City as he tried to stay fit. Since that time he now shuffles as he walks; his steps are shorter, his pace is slower, and his balance is not what it used to be. This type of gait change is very common in people suffering from memory loss, and some studies even suggest this is one of the first noticeable changes for a person developing dementia.
Recently Papa said he wants to get back into it, and reminding him of the travel and outdoor activities he will be doing this summer visiting relatives is a wonderful incentive for him to get started. Now that the spring has arrived and the snow has melted (sort of) we are taking regular walks together each afternoon in addition to his short jaunts to the corner as he waits for us to arrive home each afternoon. During these outings we make sure he has a clear path and warn him in advance of steps or large cracks in the sidewalk, or anything else he could possibly trip over. I conveniently switch from his left to his right as we walk after noticing that even a large slope in the sidewalk can cause him to veer towards that side. Each time we walk around the block we hear the same comments: This is quite a hill, I am already winded. Don’t worry Papa; it is all downhill from here! That house has a lot of toys they must have a bunch of kids. Yes, he is an Army Chaplain and his family will be getting ready to move this summer. What kind of tree is that? That is a Magnolia tree, wait until you see it flower, it is beautiful. That house is taller than the rest; I would not want to walk up those front stairs. Me either!!
I wanted Papa to be able to help set his own goals and monitor his fitness progress, so we purchased a Fitbit for him. This activity tracker is small enough to fit into his pocket and will keep track of how many steps he takes on a given day. While it actually monitors more than that, we have turned off the other features on his device to keep it simple. I can show him his online status to see if he is meeting his goals, but he also able to monitor his own progress and frequently pulls his Fitbit out of his pocket to check his count. Papa definitely wants to make sure he is getting credit for each step that he takes! What we need to work on however is for him to realize it is ok to exceed his set goal. The challenge for Papa seems to be to try and hit his daily step count exactly and not waste any extra steps after his target number has been reached. Other than getting a mental workout trying to count how many steps he will need at the end of the day before he puts on his relaxing clothes, there is no prize to hit the goal number exactly.
Each walk does not need to be an excursion out of Papa’s comfort zone; we have measured the mileage around our block and local area so Papa has a sense of distance. We have conveniently driven to the bank with him and walked home to increase his walks and continue to familiarize him with our neighborhood. Last week on a sunny day he managed to walk both directions to the bank and back for a total of two miles with a brief stop for a Slurpee on the way home. Success! Fortunately there is a bench on the route so Doug and Papa could relax for a few moments. I am not in a hurry, why would I want to drink and walk at the same time? I never heard of anyone doing that before. So they sat and watched the cars drive by as he finished his drink. Leave it to Papa, he has also found, and used, the one port-a-potty on their one-mile route home. I worry what we will do once that has been removed…. Papa was very proud of himself for walking to the bank and back, but did mention he is not in a hurry to do that every time he has to cash a check.
End note: Please let me know if you have a Fitbit and want to friend Papa to see his progress.