Making a splash in dementia research

Australia now has its first ever aqua-aerobics exercise program for people living with dementia, thanks to the University of QLD and Blue Care.

Above: Blue Care Toowoomba Aged Care Facility assistant in nursing, Mirta Alonso Silva, and resident, Jim Brown, make a splash during Water Memories Swim Club.

By Yasmin Noone

The University of Queensland and Blue Care Research & Practice Development Centre have jointly created the first Australian aqua-aerobics exercise program for adults living with dementia.

The Water Memories swimming club, run out of the Milne Bay Aquatic Centre in Toowoomba (QLD), is a dementia-specific, evidence-based aquatic exercise program that combines the joy of swimming with the physical, social and psychological benefits of the exercise.

Developed jointly by UQ exercise physiologist, Dr Tim Henwood, and dementia expert, Associate Professor Christine Neville, the pilot program was first run late-last year and its second six-week phase has just been completed. The third round is due to commence in September.

Dr Henwood said that although the theory of residential aged care and aqua aerobics hadn’t been tested previous to this program, there was evidence to suggest a positive relationship between aqua aerobics and Parkinson’s disease.

“So we combined previous evidence and came up with something that was new,” explained Dr Henwood.

To-date, he commented, the program has reaped positive outcomes and the participants say they feel more relaxed as a result of getting involved. This is most likely because the activity of swimming acts as a trigger for childhood memories, while the water is recognised as a safe, fun and familiar environment.

“A lot of these people, especially these guys out at Toowoomba, lived on old farming properties. 

“When we talked to participants, these 80 and 90 year old women with advanced dementia, they could recall details about swimming in the creek on the farm better than they could recall what had for lunch the day before.

“So we thought the water environment would be good for these people. This type of program just made complete sense to us.”

Open to participants of all age groups and levels of care, the club was delivered once a week by a qualified swim instructor, with each participant assisted in the pool by a family member or volunteer. Older people living with dementia from two surrounding Churches of Christ facilities were involved.

Session contain 16 exercises that were each divided among a warm-up, balance, aerobics, resistance, cool down and free-swim phase.

“For the average person, the session would be low-intensity. But for these people with advanced functional decline, it is well targeted.

“Exercise works across all levels of disability, age and fitness levels.

“What we’ve done here is use one form of exercise – aqua aerobics – that reduces a participant’s risk of falling and is a resistance exercise conducted in a heated environment.

“It gets people out of the residential aged care facility and encourages them to have fun in an environment they once used to enjoy.”

Program facilitator and Blue Care nurse, Marjorie Crawford, said it was great to see the smiles on participants’ faces as they revisited childhood memories in an environment where they felt safe. 

“We were advised on some of the benefits residents could expect but I was surprised there have been so many additional benefits we hadn’t anticipated,” said Ms Crawford.

“Just getting the residents out and active in a community setting is terrific. 

“It’s important the wider community gets to see and interact with people with memory loss and it also brings a lot of joy to family members and staff to see the residents outside the care environment.”

The Water Memories swimming club team are now in the middle of compiling an evidence-based training manual DVD to help other aged care organisations and swimming centres roll out a program of their own.

“The training DVD and manual will hopefully help other swimming instructors to take on that level of responsibility to train people to roll out the program,” Dr Henwood said.

“Once have the manual and DVD, hopefully we will be able to achieve more funding so we can disseminate it freely.

“People are quite welcome to contact me and stay up-to-date with how things are going.”
Dr Henwood also encourages interested individuals and organisations to get involved in the next round of the program later in the year.

For more information or to participate in the program’s next round of swimming sessions, contact: Dr Tim Henwood at the UQ/ Blue Care Research & Practice Development Centre on 07 3720 5303 or email

Tags: acquatic-centre, aerobics, alzheimer, aqua, blue-care, churches-of-christ, dementia, milne-bay, swimming, toowoomba, university-of-qld, uq, water-memories,

3 thoughts on “Making a splash in dementia research

  1. Interested work at Bentleigh Bayside Community Health Gardeners Road bentleigh East, 3165
    can someone please contact as have clients with dementia
    thanks, (B) 03 9575 5303

  2. Please contact me for confirmation of program for September. It was a pleasure to lead the swim program would love to continue with DT for preventatiive health ideas.

  3. Oh yeh! Fun in the pool with all participants,
    wonderful team of people. Looking forward to leading our “Watermemories” group again this October 2012. Regards Pauline Metzroth -your swim and aqua instructor! God Bless 🙂

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