The 1.5-mile stretch between Alcatraz and the St. Francis Yacht Club is rough; there’s a constant current that pulls swimmers toward the infamous island in the San Francisco Bay , its water is 60 degrees and it’s choppy. Oh, and did we mention sharks?
For 82-year-old Dr. Charles Farrell, prison is the perfect analogy for dementia, an illness for which he’s raising funds and awareness.
“Alcatraz is a prison and one of the big problems that families and individuals have is that they get secluded from society and many times they actually build their own prison around themselves,” said the Westlake resident, who swam the distance with his life partner, Luise Easton on July 24. He noted that just because you live with dementia, you don’t have to feel like you’re in prison and you can still lead a full life.
The fundraiser, which was organized by his daughter, the Rev. Katie Norris, set out with a goal of raising $25,000 for the Carolyn L. Farrell foundation, a local foundation that Farrell started with his daughter. Things like having professional artists come in and work with those afflicted are paid for through the funds raised.
So far he’s raised $18,000.
“When my dad called me and told me about his idea for the swim, I thought it was typical of my dad,” said the Norris, who preaches at in San Francisco at a Unitarian Universalist Church. “He’s always liked to do really funky sports things, so I was not surprised.”
Farrell, a retired vascular surgeon, got personally involved with dementia when his wife, Carolyn, was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a progressive disease with symptoms that mimic those of Parkinson’s. She died from the affliction in 2015.
However, Farrell and Norris believed they had learned enough about the disease to help others suffering from it. In 2011 they formed the Carolyn L. Farrell Foundation to help those affected through art and music activities.
“Right now, there are 5 million folks in the United States who have dementia,” Farrell said. “Probably 70-75% of those folks live at home and there are very (few) opportunities for them to engage in personally designed activities that help them to live well with their dementia.”
Farrell trained with Easton, a retired gym teacher who has been a competitive swimmer for most of her life. They began training for the swim in May by doing practice runs in Lake Erie to match the water conditions and temperature of the real course.
Odyssey Open Water provided kayak guides and a boat to take them out to the prison for the swim. At the beginning of the swim, Farrell and Easton had to work against a strong current that wanted to pull them toward the island.
“I had no experience dealing with ocean tides and currents so the biggest problem for us was that we had to swim across the current,” Farrell said. “It was very difficult, and I was only able to swim this because I had some guidance and help.”
The hardest part for Easton was making sure Farrell stayed on course.
“He tends to swim stronger with one arm than the other so he could end up swimming circles,” said Easton, who had swum from Alcatraz twice before. “My goal was to swim slow and stay on his breathing side so he could see me and follow along.”
During the swim they were cheered on by his daughter and her family by boat until they could once again embrace on land. The event, streamed live on Facebook by Norris, drew over 1,000 views for the foundation’s page.
“It was awesome,” Norris said. “It’s not an easy swim for anyone. “I wasn’t actually afraid that he couldn’t finish. I was just worried he’d end up in the wrong spot. I also didn’t expect it would be so much like the journey we had with our mom.”
After three hours, Farrell and Easton made it. While the swim has been completed, the foundation’s work has not. Donations may be made at farrellfoundation.org..
“By the year 2050, there’s going to be 20 million people living with dementia,” Farrell said. “The cost of dementia care at that time will exceed $2 trillion. It seems pretty clear to me that we as a community will be responsible for caring for this community.”
Contact this reporter at email@example.com or 440-871-5797.