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Seniors go fishing for faded memories

Helen Day’s eyes lit up when she spotted a gull nesting on a sandbar in West Medical Lake, and again when several more birds swooped down to join it.

The sight connected her to a distant memory: picking up trash somewhere outdoors, determined to make the environment safer for animals.

“When we used to go outside, we used to pick out a section, and …”

The memory faded quickly.

It was Thursday morning, and Day, 85, was sitting comfortably in her wheelchair alongside more than a dozen other residents of local senior homes. They were taken to the lake to fish, an endeavor stunted by the baking sun and murky water.

Day chose not to cast a line: “I never catch anything,” she said.

But she managed to dredge up small pieces of her past.

Fishing is one of many activities offered to the residents of Brookdale Senior Living homes, many of whom grapple with some form of dementia. Through dance lessons, fashion shows, crab boils and Wii bowling tournaments, caregivers hope to keep their minds stimulated.

“I’m always doing crazy things with them,” said Heather Newbill, the resident programs director at Brookdale’s Park Place facility in Spokane Valley. “It helps bring back good memories. It reminds them of things they like to do.”

Research shows that revisiting old hobbies can stave off memory loss, although there is no cure for dementia. One in nine people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We have residents who maybe stay in their rooms all day, but then we bring them here and they’re a completely different person,” Newbill said.

“There’s a big change,” added Nathaniel Weyer, 16, who volunteers at Park Place five days a week. “Sometimes it brings them back to their childhood.”

Fishing took Helen Day back three decades. Asked about her age Thursday morning, she insisted she was 53.

Every two months or so, she gets a visit from her daughter, Valerie Rhodes, who lives in New Mexico.

“Every time I go back, I take a stack of photos and I coach her on who’s who,” Rhodes said. “She remembers people from before – 10 or 20 years ago. It’s the new faces, the new way people look, that she can’t remember.”

Rhodes described her mother as a fun-loving woman who worked in retail and at a Catholic church; who joined a walking club and traveled to far-flung parts of the world; who deeply misses the son she lost to leukemia about a year ago. Day was diagnosed with dementia in 2010, though her cognitive abilities had started to slip years earlier.

“People don’t realize what it’s like to be a child of a person with dementia,” Rhodes said. “Not to make light of it, but it really has been an adventure.”

At the lake Thursday morning, the anglers shared life stories.

Grady Graham, 85, remembered serving as a first sergeant in Vietnam and at Fairchild Air Force Base. Omar Steunkel, 96, said he spent seven decades as a Lutheran minister. John Eacho, 90, claimed he once caught a 14-foot sailfish.

It was 45 minutes before anyone got a bite. One man complained that his only catch was “a 7-pound salad” of soggy vegetation.

Then Burt Near, an 89-year-old hospice patient, reeled in an 11-inch rainbow trout. Camera-wielding caregivers flocked to his side. A volunteer unhooked the fish. The sun beat down on the lake, and Near couldn’t stop grinning.

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