The projects helping people with dementia to enjoy going swimming

From the October/November 2016 issue of our magazine - swimming can be a great way to keep active and to socialise after a dementia diagnosis.

Gareth Bracken reports on making pools safe and welcoming for people affected by dementia.

Salford LDW1

Fred Braithwaite was a strong swimmer before his vascular dementia diagnosis five years ago. However, the 86-year old hadn't ventured back into the water until he started attending dementia-friendly swimming sessions in Durham last summer.

His wife Jean says,

'He had always swum in rivers and on holiday, but after his diagnosis – I don't know if it was fear or he just forgot how to do it.'

Fred and Jean, also his full-time carer, have attended weekly sessions since July 2015.

Jean, who usually joins her husband in the water, says, 

'Fred loves it.'

The Durham scheme is just one being piloted as part of a three-year Dementia Friendly Swimming project by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA). The idea is to create a network of pools that are safe and welcoming for people with dementia and their carers. Pilot schemes began early last year, and by the end of 2017 the project should be rolled out to over 100 swimming pools in England.
Alzheimer's Society created a training package for leisure centre staff to support the ASA's work. This helps staff to understand the effects of dementia and to make a difference for people affected by it.

Improved mood

Jean says that as long as Fred is accompanied by instructor Julie York, he will happily stay in the water for up to an hour. 

The benefits seem to extend well beyond Fred's time in the pool too.

Jean says, 

'Water relaxes him. He sleeps better and is more content in himself after he's been.'

Jean, who has arthritis, says that Fred's swimming has made a big difference to her, as his improved mood makes it easier to support him. She says, 

'It takes away a lot of the tension, seeing him in the water, seeing him happy.'

Another swimmer, Margaret Huggon, says she likes 'everything about the sessions'.

Margaret, who is also 86 and has dementia, says,

'I have an enjoyable time. It is such a friendly atmosphere and the staff are really helpful.

'I see the same regulars every week and this is good, as I now recognise them when I come in and we have a chat.'

Durham LDW1

New waters

Salford has launched its own dementia-friendly swimming project, which now includes four weekly sessions across the city.
Lesley Calvert, 64, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. Although she couldn't swim at all before, she has learned to during the sessions.

She says, 

'I think I had a fear of water. I'd got my feet wet in a pool before but it was the first time I'd had my head under water.

'When I swam a length for the first time, my husband was really pleased.'

Within a couple of months Lesley was in a swimming pool with her grandchildren, which had never happened before. She says,

'That was really an achievement.'

Lesley now manages to swim up to 50 lengths a session. She says, 

'There was another lady who couldn't swim. She went on holiday with her family and they were chuffed to bits when she got in the water.'

Another group member used to be a swimming instructor, but until she joined she hadn't swum since her dementia diagnosis.
Marie Leather, the swimming teacher who leads the sessions, has introduced a specially tailored approach to support novice swimmers.

She says,

'For the members who were learning to swim, putting the different elements of a stroke together was a challenge. I devised a simple method of hand signals under the water to remind them when to breath – and it worked.'

Like family

Joy Watson, another Salford swimmer, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago at the age of 55, and she is now a Society ambassador. She describes the sessions as 'brilliant'.

She says,

'They give people confidence. I used to consider myself a reasonably good swimmer but hadn't been swimming since my diagnosis.'

Joy adds that dementia-friendly swimming isn't only about what goes on in the water. Since a friend of hers got stuck inside a changing room cubicle, adaptations have been made to the centre facilities such as cubicles and lockers. She says,

'It's all very dementia friendly. The people are very accommodating.'

Marie explains that all of the team at Worsley Leisure Centre, where the Salford sessions started, have become Dementia Friends and received training.

Lesley adds that socialising after the sessions is also important.

'We all sit down and have a cup of tea and a snack. We're like a family.

'It's great to see people who previously didn't come out of their homes. People who don't have dementia also join us in the café.'

The sessions remain a highlight of Lesley's week.

'Friday is my swimming day – nothing else goes on unless it's an emergency. It's a great morning.'

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