Classic cars revive Alzheimer’s patients

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Curtis Johnson might not remember what he ate for breakfast yesterday, and he might not understand the daily complications brought on by his Alzheimer’s, but he remembers his dad teaching him to drive a red 1929 Ford when he was a young man growing up in Eastlake.

Johnson, who is 90, was one of a handful of Alzheimer’s patients from Lakeview Estates Assisted Living facility who drove down memory lane during a classic car show last Saturday. Classic car enthusiasts parked their Oldsmobiles, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks and Chevrolets in the parking lot to jog the memories of Alzheimer’s patients, who often retain long-term memories while short-term memories disappear.

Johnson was born in 1914, and he worked in the parking lot of the Ritz Theatre on Second Avenue in downtown Birmingham. On Saturday, while glancing at a parking lot full of antique cars, Johnson remembered the different cars that came through the theater’s parking lot almost 75 years ago.

One patient from the severe memory care unit of Lakeview Estates, Bill Cowart, walked outside Saturday and looked at the classic cars. Staff members said Cowart had not spoken in months before Saturday when he noticed an antique Model-A Ford.

&uot;Where did they get my car from? Who painted it?&uot; Cowart said.

Irene Smith, who owns Lakeview Estates, said she and her staff came up with the idea for a classic car show to brighten patients’ spirits.

&uot;There is still a person in there, and they know,&uot; Smith said. &uot;We use a lot of activities to keep them from regressing.&uot;

For Saturday, Cowart and other patients buzzed around the assisted living facility, talking excitedly with one another and shuffling across hallways.

The stares and glazed-over facades disappeared from patients on Saturday.

&uot;He’ll be a happy person today,&uot; Smith said of Cowart.

Niakia Starks, who works at Lakeview Estates, said patients often talk about the past and their former lives. One lady told Starks about the pecan brittle she used to eat as a child.

Harold Luther stood proudly over his 1937 Oldsmobile while spectators asked questions about the burly engine and the mint interior. Luther recalled stories that several people had told him throughout the years. Something about a 57-year-old vehicle brings back memories, Luther said.

&uot;The old people – their eyes light up,&uot; Luther said. &uot;They weren’t all good times, but the cars bring back good memories to them.&uot;

Sometimes, the cars themselves have stories to tell. Luther said he knows the history of his ’37 Oldsmobile dating back to 1943.

&uot;A man from Nebraska bought it in Long Beach, Calif., while he was in the service,&uot; Luther said.

Jim Ketchersid, president of the Dixie Vintage Auto Club, showed his 1952 Pontiac Catalina last Saturday. Ketchersid’s mother lived at Lakeview Estates during her alheimer’s years, and he said he has experienced the mysteries of the disease.

&uot;I think someone who can’t remember this week or this month can remember 50 years ago,&uot; Ketchersid said.

The 1950s was a particularly colorful decade for American automobiles. Ketchersid’s Catalina features a detailed hood ornament that lights up.

Bill Marks, vice president of the Antique Automobile Club of America, said during Saturday’s show that classic car restoration is about restoring the beauty of the past.

&uot;We try to restore the heritage of the car,&uot; Marks said. &uot;We like to see what cars looked like in periods past.