Thursday, January 26th, 2017
If you ask Richard Driver about the first time he laid eyes on Charlotte,the love of his life, and he lights up.
“When I first saw her … she walked into that church I hit my friend, I said ‘Who is that?’,” Richard said. He remembers every detail of that moment more than four decades ago.
A few more minutes with him, and he’ll tell you story after story about his past.
On the surface it might be hard to believe that Richard is gradually losing his memory.
“Things are changing drastically. He might repeat a lot of things that he doesn’t remember asking me. It becomes disheartening because he’s not the same person that I used to know,” said Richard’s wife Charlotte.
Richard’s been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Doctors will tell you its just a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s, and Charlotte becomes his caretaker.
“I didn’t want to believe it at first,” said Richard.
The disease runs in both their families. At one point the couple’s fathers were both cared for at the same facility. The couple now cares for Charlotte’s mother with dementia.
But that doesnt make it any easier for Charlotte to accept her husband of nearly 40 years, might lose his memories with her, even his ability to recognize who she is.
“That does get rough. Yeah. I know that it can happen, and it’s okay. But I just want to be able to deal with it, and I think I will but it’s painful,” said Charlotte.
But the couple isn’t taking Richard’s diagnosis lying down. Their efforts to at least slow down Alzheimers has led them, of all places, to the stables UC Davis’s Equestrian Center.
“The amazing thing about a horse is its a physical and mental experience,” said Claudia Sonder, director of research at the UC Davis Equine Center. Sonder oversees all research projects at the sprawling, 25-acre area that houses close to 200 horse. At any given time, there are about a dozen projects involving the horses.
“Most other programs in the country don’t have a herd like this to train their scientists, to train their veterinarians and to investigate medical problems,” said Sonder.
Despite all the research that happens there, Alzheimer’s and Dementia weren’t among the most obvious topics in which to involve the horses.
“Horses have this innate ability to sense feeling and energy around them and they give you that immediate feedback,” said Paula Hertel, who alongside Nancy Schier Anzelmo created the Connected Horse Project.
Both have worked with horses their whole lives, and spent their professional careers focused on seniors’ health issues like Alzheimers and Dementia.
Between those subjects they drew a connection one not everyone saw at first.
“Yes. We were told a few times, so you’re going to do some crazy horse project?” said Schier Anzelmo.
Most estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association put the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s at more than five million – the majority are over age 65.
In its worst stages Alzheimer’s patients can lose their ability to speak entirely. Working with the horses takes nonverbal communication.