Golfers with Dementia Continue to Enjoy the Game

Alt=''On a hot, hazy Thursday morning in August, five golfers arrive at Doon Valley Golf Course in Kitchener to participate in a game they love. What is unique about this group of golfers is that each one has dementia and is participating in a program called “Golf‑Fore‑Life.” The twice-a-week program alternates between Rockway and Doon Valley Golf Courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In its first year, this pilot program is turning out to be a hidden gem, and it appears to be the only one of its kind in North America.

Golf‑Fore‑Life is an initiative of the City of Kitchener that aligns with its mission to support all residents to be active throughout their lifespan regardless of their abilities. The program began in June with a pro golfer from the club teaching skills to the participants. Since July, golfers have been playing nine holes at Rockway Golf Course on Tuesdays. On Thursdays, golfers switch to Doon Valley Golf Course for “Pitch ‘n Putt” where they practice driving, chipping and putting. Funding for the program has been provided by the Ontario Sport and Recreation Fund.

Each golfer is accompanied by a personal caddy, either a staff member or volunteer who assists them to participate in the program.  In preparation for the Golf‑Fore‑Life pilot program, all staff at both golf courses received dementia awareness training provided by the Alzheimer Society. The golf courses are accommodating the needs of the golfers and have even made an exception to club rules so participants can use golf carts in areas where they are generally not allowed.

Bethany Pearce, Supervisor of Older Adult Services for the City of Kitchener said the Golf‑Fore‑Life program shows a different side of dementia. The golfers are outside enjoying the sunshine, getting exercise and laughing with others. There is also a noted improvement in golf skills. “Care partners are ecstatic,” she says about the positive impact on the participants. Researchers from the University of Waterloo are involved in evaluating the success of the program.

Natalie Gleadall, one of the staff members supporting the participants, is a professional golfer who spent three years on the golf circuit with the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She caddies today for Denis, one of the golfers who talks about how he has enjoyed playing sports his entire life. Being active has always been an important part of Denis’s routine which is why he is so appreciative of the opportunity to continue to play golf. A warm, trusting relationship has developed between golfer and caddy, as well as a friendly, good-natured sense of humour. Denis tells the other staff, “Don’t tell Natalie that I let her beat me.”

Every one of the golfers has good things to say about Golf‑Fore‑Life. Dave, the youngest golfer with early onset dementia, has a long list of things he appreciates including the opportunity for social interaction and exercise. He also compliments the staff, describing them as passionate, sensitive and conscientious of the needs of people with dementia. Another golfer, Gord says his golf game is awful but he smiles broadly and says, “I have a lot of fun.”

The program supports golfers to participate by providing free transportation to and from the golf courses. After the morning of activity, the golf course provides refreshments and caddies write a personal note to golfers to take home to share with family and friends. Staff and golfers wait together for cabs to arrive and it is apparent everyone has had a good morning. When Gail’s cab arrives, she takes a minute to give each of her friends a hug goodbye.

There is capacity for up to 14 golfers to participate in the program which will continue through October as weather permits. Mary Trottier, Program Coordinator is enthusiastic about the feedback she is receiving from participants, families, staff and care coordinators at the Waterloo Wellington LHIN. She indicates it is particularly nice to see the participants supporting each other with their golf games. There’s always a lot of friendly chatting on the course.

One of the golfers today said, “I’m 88. I should be home sitting in a rocking chair.” You can tell by his grin that he’s pulling your leg … he’s very happy to be golfing.