Nov 27, 2011

The Walking Club

The Walking Club had begun as an exercise activity however somewhere along our journey turned into a circle of friendship I’ll cherish forever.

By Ellen Belk

“You may want to wear a jacket, it’s pretty chilly outside Dorothy,” I coaxed as I stood in the doorway of her apartment.

She reached for the furry pink one. “How about this?” she asked.

“I love that coat,” I cooed.

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Dorothy buttoned up her furry pink coat, locked the door to her apartment and we walked towards the elevator. It was nearly 1:30pm on Friday December 8th. The Walking Club had been meeting every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1:30 for over a year. The others were waiting for us by the front door and greeted us as we approached.

“Okay ladies, here we go!” I cheered.

The sky was Carolina Blue that day and the sun shone brightly yet there was a crisp briskness to the air.

Millie, Ila, Dorothy, Helen, Joyce and I were the core walkers in the Walking Club.

Occasionally others would join us but I could always count on my steady group of five. I looked forward to our walks. And, on this day – I was nearly bursting to tell them my secret. We were barely 50 yards into our walk that day when I blurted it out; “My boyfriend Dan asked me to marry him last night! We are engaged!”

The ladies squealed simultaneously.

Ila was the first to recover; “well let’s see the ring,” she said.

Millie, Ila, Dorothy, Helen and Joyce were all resident’s in the secured memory care building where I was the Director of Life Enrichment. However, if I learned anything while holding that position, it was that the resident’s I served enriched my life far more than I did theirs.

Our weekly walks served so many purposes. It was a fantastic boost of fresh air that we all enjoyed. Sure, the exercise was the main objective but the conversations were nearly as fascinating. Each of the ladies was so unique and although each of them were in varying stages of their cognitive decline, the Walking Club was a wonderful outlet.

Ila, a silver-haired beauty was always impeccably dressed as she frequently shared her recollections of flying airplanes. She captivated me with her stories of adventure of being the youngest gal in her small-town of Ohio to fly solo at the tender age of 16.

Millie was quick witted with a charming personality. She too, shared frequent musings of her days as an executive assistant at a research laboratory.

Helen was the quiet one. Always listening and briskly following a step or two behind the group. She carried a notebook and consistently jotted down ‘notes’ as we walked. None of the other ladies seemed to notice her unusual quirk or if they did, they never commented. I never asked her what she wrote I only knew it was very important for her peace of mind to document her detailed observations.

Dorothy was thin and wiry and would often cajole the group to walk faster.

Joyce was the youngest of the bunch. She was quick to laugh and had the loveliest southern drawl.

Some days we walked around the small lake that was nestled amongst the trees on the 36 acres of land the memory care building rested on. We would stand on the foot bridge and admire the myriad of fish and turtles swimming in the water below. Other days we would walk to the outdoor pool area at the main building on campus and take a break on the patio furniture and sip lemonade.

On chilly days, we’d head directly to the main building and I’d serve the others coffee while Ila would take her seat at the baby-grand piano in the lobby and play beautiful music, from memory. She needed no sheet music and often took requests and would blush with pride as passers-by would stop, listen and applaud her talent.

Indeed, our Walking Club excursions were typically the highpoint of my work week. I frequently shared stories of my life, giving them updates about my family, friends and details from the ‘outside’ world.

Joyce especially loved to ask me questions about what was happening in the news. I spared them the sordid details from the news-of-the-day but, would certainly share information that they would understand and appreciate. This often led to deeper conversations about morality and how “life was in their day.” I found their insights and comments to be remarkably charming.

That’s why, when Dan proposed to me, unexpectedly on that Thursday evening, I was completely thrilled that I’d be able to share my news with my special circle of gal pals the next day during our Friday stroll.

We stopped in our tracks as the ladies surrounded me and I extended my left hand for them to see the ring. It was a genuine piece of custom-made craftsmanship and each of them gushed over me, like any true gal-pal would.

Joyce was the first to comment on my “glowing smile” as she proceeded to hug me tightly. Helen’s pen was moving feverishly over her paper while Dorothy asked me to tell them more about Dan.

We began walking again and I shared my story with them. How I’d met this southern gentleman and how he’d courted me. Ila and Joyce each shared their own stories of meeting their husbands and we all giggled like school girls as we discussed wedding details.

From that day forward, even though all five ladies had a true diagnosis of cognitive impairment, it was remarkable how many times they would ask me about Dan or ask for more details about the approaching wedding day. It was almost as if my news and happiness had triggered something inside their slowly fading memory banks because somehow they found a way to retain my engagement news.

Their blissfulness lasted the whole five months until my actual wedding day.

The Walking Club had begun as an exercise activity however somewhere along our journey turned into a circle of friendship I’ll cherish forever.

Ellen Belk is President of Keep In Mind™ and creator of Memory Magz™. Since 2001, Belk has specialized in developing programming for the memory impaired. A mature musician concert band, an intergenerational Senior Prom and a Fine Art appreciation program are amongst her professional highlights. Memory Magz™ are ‘magazine style’ picture publications with full page vibrant images purposefully designed for people with cognitive decline and/or developmental disabilities. As a public speaker, Belk engages the audience with her inter-active style and witty story telling.

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Original content Ellen Belk, the Alzheimer's Reading Room