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The Florida Shuffle

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Big news in research: Changes in gait may be a signal that the brain is on its way to Alzheimer's disease. Gait? Suddenly, years of my mother's nagging commands swarmed in my head. "Stand up straight!" she'd yell. "Don't drag your feet."

William Thies, the chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Association, concluded: "If gait begins to deteriorate, we begin to have a conversation about how is your memory." (Read the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/health/research/signs-of-cognitive-decline-and-alzheimers-are-seen-in-gait.html?pagewanted=all)

Reading about gait brings to mind Pompano Beach, Florida, the central landing pad for snowbirds. A snowbird, for those unfamiliar with the migration patterns of retired adults of the United States, is someone who gets into their car with all their belongings clipped on a pre-fab hanging rod suspended above the back seat and drives south for the winter. Usually with one blinker flashing.

Pompano Beach is marked by high-rise apartment buildings that look like they're constructed of cement Legos, decorated inside with plaques etched with Resident Rules of Conduct, a list to rival the Magna Carta. No bare feet permitted. No swim wear in the lobby. No food, no smoking, no no no. The residents are rule-obsessed people living active lives, moving at the speed of glaciers. Gin rummy, talent shows, holiday parties, sugar-free ice cream socials. It's like summer camp, only slower.

My grandparents were snowbirds. They had a one-bedroom apartment with two doors to the hall. The front door was for guests. The back door was for taking out the garbage. They kept the heavy drapes drawn to minimize fading of their furniture. The sofa, where I slept, was encased in plastic. To this day, I like the smell of polyurethane.

One winter my mother and I traveled to Florida together. The weather was cool. My grandparents picked us up at the airport wearing matching parkas and took us directly to their favorite restaurant for lunch. "Soup!" My grandmother told the hostess. Her feet scuffed along the floor. My grandfather walked as if moving through peanut butter. In his hand, he gripped the coupon for soup. Both of them dragged their feet as if their shoes were magnetically attracted to the floor.

My mother and I had just one sweater and one pair of closed-toe shoes between us. We headed out to the mall to buy some long sleeve shirts. Crossing the street in Pompano Beach is like a slow-motion relay race. The chiming pedestrian signal prompts walkers to continue while those who've arrived at the other side cheer those still shuffling toward the curb. "Come on, Milton! Run! You're almost there!" When a door opened onto the sidewalk, my mother pushed me inside. It was an old-fashioned beauty salon. "Let's get a haircut," my mother whispered. "It'll give us a chance to warm up." She asked the receptionist how long a permanent wave takes. Then she pointed at me.

Hours later, with my hair coiffed like a Carol Channing wig, we returned to the apartment building where an ambulance was parked, doors open, in the driveway. "What happened?" my mother asked the elderly couple in the lobby. They wore matching orthopedic shoes, huge rubber blocks with thick Velcro straps. It's no wonder no one down here can walk, I thought. "It's Mr. Roland on 14," the man answered. "He didn't look well." My mother eyeballed me and mouthed: Straighten up!

Forty years later I wonder, has my gait changed? I am the same age as the Alzheimer's study participants. I decided to spruce up my own gait. I plant each foot with purpose. My son said, "You look like a clydesdale." I shrugged and straightened up: "This is how I roll."