Dr. Charlie Farrell wants people to know dementia doesn’t have to be a prison. To help raise awareness for the condition, the 82-year-old Kendal at Home member is going to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco on July 24.
Farrell, a retired vascular surgeon, founded the Carolyn L. Farrell Foundation with his daughter Katie after his wife Carolyn developed lewy body dementia. She passed away in 2015 from the disease.
The foundation makes art-based programming available to the community. Its programs provide opportunities for socialization, which research has shown can be beneficial for individuals affected by dementia, according to Farrell. Participants can do a variety of activities from painting, printmaking, ceramics, to mixed media and crafts along with music, dance/movement, storytelling, and poetry.
“We found that art was a great form of communication between myself, Katie and my wife,” Farrell said. “So we’d like to share that with the community. We feel that what we are doing is valuable and should be available to everyone. All of our programs are free to the community.”
That’s where the swim from Alcatraz comes in: In addition to raising awareness for dementia, Farrell hopes to raise money for the Farrell Foundation so it can continue providing programs for people with dementia and their care partners.
“Everyone looks at dementia as the end of the world, but it doesn’t have to be. We have been very successful in providing care for people with dementia to lead a meaningful life,” he said.
Training for the Swim
A former runner, Farrell completed over 20 marathons, but as he aged, he found triathlons to be a better fit.
“I found I really enjoy swimming. It’s the most comfortable activity for me,” he said.
To prepare for the swim from Alcatraz, Farrell has increased his training, spending three days per week swimming and taking advantage of a recent vacation to Hawaii to practice the two-mile swim in open water. Farrell, a member of the Ohio Masters Swim Club, will make the swim with his partner, who is also a swimmer, and his son.
“My biggest concern is not necessarily the distance, but the temperature of the water,” Farrell said. “I’m trying to get myself acclimated to cold water by swimming in Lake Erie.”
He hopes to raise $25,000 for the Farrell Foundation.
“I figured I would be more motivated if I turned this into a fundraiser for the foundation and be able to raise interest in who we are and what we do and for what the home caregivers do every day,” he explained.
Odyssey Open Water Swimming will monitor the swim with support crews stationed in boats to provide help if needed. To participate, swimmers must be able to swim 140 lengths of a 25-yard pool.
The Value of Arts to Those who have Dementia
“People with dementia can still communicate very clearly emotionally even though their memory is affected,” Farrell said. “They don’t ‘act out’ or do a certain behavior because of dementia, it’s because of a difficulty in communicating. We focus on how you communicate with someone who has dementia.”
For example, Farell points out, if a person with dementia is frustrated because there is a difficulty in their environment — like the room is too hot — it’s up to us to figure out what that difficulty is.
“We present dementia communication in a way you can understand,” he said. “That’s where the arts come in. We use the five senses.”
Farrell and the foundation will also work with Dementia Friends to help those with dementia, and those who care for them, stay active in their communities.
“In the future, we want to educate businesses and organizations that you can keep people involved in their communities just by changing the way we do some things,” he said.