Tables were pushed out of the way, toward walls and to corners of the spacious dining area. Streamers — blue, yellow, black, green, red — hung from the ceiling. The grandstands — made up of wheelchairs and walkers — were full. An excited, almost tangible buzz filled the room.
After the national anthem’s last note, the first-ever Chelsea Place Olympic Games were underway.
Hoots and hollers flooded the Aurora residential memory care community. The first participants, Jake Jacobs, 86, and Ken Gould, 81, took to the starting line for the men’s biathlon. The crowd counted down in unison: “10, 9, 8… Go!”
The two men launched from the starting line. Buoyed by spectators’ applause and boisterous support, they walked cautiously down the course, a ski pole in each hand. As they neared the finish line about 90 seconds later, they traded their steadying poles for Nerf guns and shot foam pellets at a target — roughly mimicking the Olympic biathlon competition, in which rifle shooting follows cross country skiing.
The crowd of snow hat- and goggle-clad residents cheered, and the course was cleared for the women’s biathlon.
After another countdown, Nancy Bert, 79, and Mary Lloyd, 94, took to the course. They weren’t nearly as careful as the men. Supported by walkers, the two ran down the hallway, paused in the middle of the course to catch their breath, then continued at full speed toward the Nerf guns.
Sure, the race track was a narrow, straight, 100-foot length of hallway. Yes, the Olympic torches that onlookers held were made from construction paper. But not a soul in the room minded — smiles stretched across the faces of participants and onlookers, alike.
While the feelings of glee would linger, most in the room wouldn’t remember the event in a few hours’ time.
All of the residents at Chelsea Place, ages 60 to 98, have dementia.
“I’m trying to break down that stigma around what people with dementia can and cannot do,” said Jenni Dill, life engagement director at Chelsea Place. “The fact that this may not be remembered tomorrow doesn’t matter, because all of the chemicals in the elders’ brains that release happy hormones are still there. So, whether or not the memory is intact really doesn’t matter.”
These Olympic games wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a bunch of rambunctious teenagers — students from Aurora’s Regis Jesuit High School. As part of a 60-hour service project, 13 boys visited Chelsea Place five days a week for two weeks.
Between getting to know the residents and tasks like cleaning, flower arranging and cooking, the teens created the Chelsea Place Olympic Games.
Together, Dill and the teens used their imaginations to tailor real-life Olympic sports for safety and ease. The students helped the seniors through several of the competitions: They pushed them in wheelchairs for the bobsleigh event, then again in gurney-like chairs during the luge race.
“As a whole, it was really cool for me to be able to participate and to see people you wouldn’t generally be seeing doing athletic events,” said 17-year-old Alex Occhionero, a senior at Regis. “Especially with activities like this, it’s eye-opening to show that these people aren’t just stuck in wheelchairs all day. I think people think, ‘Oh, you have Alzheimer’s or you have dementia — that’s the end of the road.’ They might think these places are almost morbid. But really, it’s almost like a rebirth, in a sense, because you’re a new person. You have the ability to do things that people don’t think you have. It’s cool to be able to stimulate that and be a part of it.”
At the end of the games competitors were awarded gold medals the students had made from salt dough. Five Bundt cakes, colored to reflect the Olympic rings, were sliced and doled out as celebratory snacks.
“I thought it was a fun thing for a place like this. We need some fun things,” resident Alice Killin, 88, said of the Chelsea Place Olympics. “It’s nice to see different people and to talk to different people. Just the group enjoying things together — I think that was the best part of it.”
Soon, a group of girls from Regis will work with Dill and her team. She hasn’t started planning the activities they’ll dive into, but she’s looking forward to sharing the memory care community with the teens.
“We had a great time, and we laughed, and we were goofballs together,” Dill said of working with the boys. “I hope these kids walk away from here feeling like, ‘This is a pretty cool place to be.’”
Chelsea Place, 14055 E. Quincy Ave., Aurora; 303-680-4729; anthemmemorycare.com