When my mother was a girl, she used to spend summers at her grandparents’ farm in Strickland, Maine. It was a special time and place for her and she has regaled us with stories for as long as I can remember. I knew that out of her love of the farm grew a love of horses, and that as a teenager she took riding lessons at Tomlinson’s Riding School in Westbrook and was also a member of the riding club at Portland High School.
Yesterday, I heard a new story. “Grandpa had workhorses,” she told me. “I used to like to help him. I remember sitting beside him in the wagon when he was going through the fields and haying. I loved going with my grandfather.”
It was a close encounter with a horse that pulled up that long ago image for my mother. It is usually what just happened that she can’t recall, but as her Alzheimer’s disease progresses, even long-term memories can be lost. “Honestly, Diane,” she’ll say to me, “sometimes I feel so addlepated. I don’t know what’s going on half the time.”
I learned something important recently, from Bill Kirkpatrick at the Maine Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. He said that even as cognitive memories diminish, emotional memories remain. I decided that I needed to try and build a storage bank full of happy memories for my mother. So yesterday, we paid a visit to Carlisle Academy in Lyman, Maine where she had a private lesson in adaptive carriage driving.
Even though I had told her several times where we were going and why, she was confused when we arrived. But under the loving guidance of the therapeutic riding instructors and volunteers, led by Sue Grant, she quickly relaxed and, in no time, was clearly at ease and ready to ride!
Once she was in the carriage, the first thing Sue did was test Mom’s skills in a safe environment — the indoor arena.
Sue saw that she needed verbal prompts for navigating from point A to point B, but she was able to steer for herself. “Her ability and appreciation of uneven terrain was fabulous,” said Sue. “She obviously likes the motion, she was getting the voice commands down pretty easily, and was responding very positively to moving forward in a carriage.”
Sue determined that Mom was ready to drive the carriage outside. The weather was a miracle! Here it was mid-November and not only was it sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky, it was in the 60s! We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.
Back at the barn, Mom got to do what she seemed to enjoy most of all, grooming her horse.
“I enjoyed it,” she told me on the way home. “I was at ease with him where someone else might not be because of the size of him. It felt familiar and it brought back old memories.I always felt at home with horses because of being around them at the farm. I loved being around them. It was fun.”
First thing this morning, I got a phone call from my mother. These are her exact words: “I had such a nice time yesterday. I woke up this morning thinking about the horse and grooming him and about the scenery. We should do something like that again.”
We will, I promised. We’re already planning next week’s adventure.
This story was originally posted in Diane and Beverly, a blog about me and my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.