I came across a fascinating article by Lisa M. Krieger the other day, about Alzheimer’s patients going golfing and remembering how to swing a club, though other memories had left them entirely. It grabbed my attention because someone had remarked that Grandpa Glen in Folding Memory remembered frog-folding in his “muscle memory.”
Muscle cells have no ability to contain memories. Rather, the brain holds the memory of how the muscles have been trained, and that data is stored in one of the brain regions that is slower to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus is the region of the brain that makes and stores new memories, and it is the first to show the symptoms of dementia. The progressive degeneration of the brain will eventually affect all brain regions, but the area that stores motor and procedural memory remains healthy longer.
I was happy to read this, as it validates Grandpa Glen’s behavior in the book. Though he has lost the names and faces of his family, he still knows how to make the frog hop. Should Daniel ask Glen to actually fold the frog himself on his next visit? It would be worth trying, though Glen’s “gnarled fingers” may be so crippled with arthritis that his dexterity is impaired.
Krieger’s article tells about the residents of Silverado Senior Living in Belmont, California who go golfing once a week on Wednesday. They are perked up, tired out, and given dignity by spending time in the fresh air and engaging in a skill they learned in their younger days. They are able to shine on the course almost as bright as they did when they were active in their lives as executives and professors. As Krieger so poetically puts it, “Facts fade, but a fairway is forever.”
“Forever” may be overstating the case, since Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease, and though the motor memory may go last, it will eventually go. Thus, when Daniel accepts that the frog-folding may not always work for Glen, he is acknowledging that his grandpa’s dementia is unpredictable. One day Glen may respond; the next he may not. Glen is nevertheless a worthy person, like the golfers at Silverado. Treating a person with respect and love for his personhood can alleviate some of the loneliness and hopelessness dementia sufferers feel.
Something that Krieger reported really touched me. She said that the golf pro, Gerry Benton, realized that he should start fresh every week when giving guidance to his golfers. He had to retire the word “remember”—as in “remember, we worked on this last week?” No, his golfers had no memory of last week’s instructions. But put a club in their hands and they come alive.
In an imaginary sequel to Folding Memory, it would be no use for Daniel to say, “Don’t you remember, Grandpa? We folded a frog last Sunday.” Daniel will have to arrive “fresh” at every play date and begin with placing the paper in front of Glen as if for the first time.
Find the original article at https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2011/09/29/muscle-memory-for-golf-isnt-lost-in-alzheimers-patients/