CUPERTINO, Calif. – Like so many great ideas of our generation, this one was born at a Stevie Wonder concert.
Three years ago, Gerry Benton – a teaching professional at a cozy executive track called Deep Cliff Golf Course – attended a show by the legendary rock musician as part of a large group. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to an employee of Silverado Senior Living, a facility which cares for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“We just happened to meet there and started to talk. She had this idea to bring her people to the golf course and asked me if that would be OK and how I thought they would do,” Benton recalls. “I said, ‘Let's try it.’”
While most instructors may balk at such an undertaking, anyone who knows Benton shouldn’t have been surprised by his response.
A latecomer to golf who didn’t start playing until his 20s, he describes himself as a slacker, but is actually quite the opposite. The 54-year-old has always been open to new challenges.
“I am curious about the way everything works, and I don't know where I get that from. It just was something I was born with, but I just have always been curious about anything and everything,” Benton says. “I think this natural curiosity leads me to want to explore.”
That curiosity also led him to work with Silverado’s residents. Shortly after that chance encounter at the concert, Benton agreed to give weekly lessons to a group of anywhere between six and 12 pupils, most of whom not only were suffering from the crippling disease, but had never picked up a golf club.
And so every Wednesday for the past three years, these neophyte golfers have taken a 30-minute bus ride from their home in Belmont, Calif., enjoyed a casual lunch on the Deep Cliff patio and – one by one – ambled down the steep decline toward the practice facility.
There are 90-year-old great-grandmothers. Men in wheelchairs using oxygen tubes to help breathe. People who have difficulty recalling family members and important events in their lives.
Golf certainly seems like a trivial pursuit in comparison to such hardships, but the game has actually turned out to be a soothing antidote for those in need of one. Week after week, seniors struggling with memory loss continue to recall their firm grip on a golf club or the instant exhilaration of holing a 5-foot putt.
The lessons, though, are less about restoring memory and more about living in the moment.
“Some of the seniors don’t remember things in their short-term memory,” Benton explains. “In trying to help them, sometimes I would say, ‘Remember when we did such and such a thing?’ and I soon learned that they didn’t. I just eventually removed that word ‘remember’ out of my vocabulary, because I realized that they didn’t remember. It was just what was going on in the moment is what existed for them and they may not remember it again.”
It’s a theory to which the pro has no trouble relating.
“That really appealed to me, because that’s kind of how I live my life,” he says. “I’ve lived most of my life in the present. I’ve tried to be responsible and look into the future and think about things I need to do for down the road, but that doesn’t come easily for me.
“It’s mostly about what is happening right now, so when working with the Silverado residents it’s nice for me, because I get to do that. I don’t have to have my conscience saying, ‘You should be thinking about your future.’ I can just throw all that away and I can just focus on now. That feels real nice for me. I think that’s how it is for them.”
And so rather than focusing on building progression in their games, Benton helps the seniors enjoy the lessons as much as possible. There are colorful instructional aides. A large tic-tac-toe board on one part of the putting green. A croquet-style game on another.
The pupils take part in whichever activity they’d like, for as long as they like. Some of them spend the entire lesson beating range balls into the afternoon sky. Others mostly sit under the large nearby tree and observe the festivities.
They may not be processing information about certain aspects of the game on a week-to-week basis, but that doesn’t mean nobody is learning at the lessons. The teacher has gotten quite an education from his students.
“I really didn’t have any expectations when they first came,” he admits. “Personally, it kind of confirmed for me how I’ve lived my life in the moment most of the time. It really made that OK. It was like, yeah, this is where it’s at.'