“What airplane are we flying?”
This was at least the fifth time that my stepfather asked that question as we drove to the airport, where I had booked a Cessna 172 for a local flight. This wonderful man, a world-renowned scientist who earned his private pilot certificate later in life, has Alzheimer's disease. While he is genuinely happy most of the time, he also cannot remember anything that happened even minutes before. Except, it seems, when it comes to aviation.
He learned to fly in a Citabria that we owned together, and he was a fine pilot, with a sure hand on the controls. To this day, he still recalls (with a little prompting) his most excellent flight, a day when he flew with a friend to a local airshow where, in front of a crowd of landing-quality critics, he made the best landing of his life. That story is still retrievable, and I bring it up every time I see him.
But I took him for a long flight two years prior, and he didn't remember that. Is it even worth taking him flying again? Will he forget about it almost immediately?
I needn't have worried. The weather wasn't great, so we stayed in the traffic pattern for about an hour, and he had a wonderful time.
Three days later he still remembered that flight. He raved about how “it all came back” as we were lining up with the runway on final. It seems that the flying muscle memory that he built more than 25 years ago is permanently engraved in his nervous system. Or else flying has a positive effect on Alzheimer's sufferers.
Whatever the case, there is no question now about the benefits of flying for my stepfather. I’m hoping to plan more flights, and I will keep talking about flying as long as he likes.
I have no idea whether this would help with others afflicted with this horrible disease, but I like to think that a short flight could lift a little of the despair that Alzheimer's brings. As long as it's done safely, a little bit of flying can't hurt.
Kudos, by the way, to OpenAirplane, the system that enables me to rent airplanes all over the U.S. with only a single annual checkout. OpenAirplane makes it so much easier to take far-flung family members flying without the hassle and cost of a local checkout flight.