Dance and art stimulate memories of Alzheimer’s patients

INDIANAPOLIS – “Are you ready to wake up today? Dance teacher Dana Hart urges a dozen seniors and their caregivers gathered in the common room of the retirement home. At first, the elders look anything but ready, slowly rising from their chairs to their feet.

But over the next 45 minutes, many start heading in Hart’s directions. Yes, shuffle. Others stay in their wheelchairs, stretching their legs in time or clapping their hands. All smiles.

The elderly live at Harrison Terrace, a nursing home in Indianapolis for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related dementias.

The dance class, which meets every other Friday, is part of the latest philosophies on how to help people with memory-related illnesses for which no cure exists. More and more, those who treat these patients have realized the importance of the arts. Music, visual arts, and movement can help unlock glimmers of understanding for patients with memory loss.

“It’s pretty funny,” said Mary Alice Griffith, 74, adding with a wink, “just watching everyone make a fool of themselves.”

“We laugh a lot,” added his friend Joe Trice, 76.

Much of the evidence supporting the therapeutic power of the arts is anecdotal. Designing controlled experiments, after all, presents challenges. Yet those who work in this field say the arts are a natural way to reach someone who is cognitively withdrawing.

“Patients can become more emotionally sensitive as their verbal and visual memory begins to deteriorate,” said Dr. Brandy Matthews, researcher at the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center.

Listening to music, dancing, creating or enjoying art can generate reactions. Some studies have shown that after listening to music, residents of nursing homes become less restless and aggressive and have fewer hallucinations. Other studies have shown that people with another type of dementia develop a compulsion to create works of art, perhaps as a way to channel their emotions and communicate.

Art classes added

Harrison Terrace has also recently started offering art classes to its residents, in the hopes that creating artwork will prove beneficial to them.

“What we’re trying to do here is connect people with memories of their past, whatever can spark a sense of remembrance,” said Teri House, director of marketing and admissions at Harrison.

Dance therapists have known about the benefits of movement for seniors for decades, says Donna Newman-Bluestein, spokesperson for the American Dance Therapy Association and dance therapist in the Boston area.

Through her work with older people with severe dementia, Newman-Bluestein has noticed that dancing helps them increase their vitality and the number of social interactions they have. She assumes that movement helps improve their circulation and breathing, which can improve their brain health.

However, the most significant change Newman-Bluestein sees is the impact of dancing on a person’s feeling of isolation, lack of power, and loneliness.

“Because we are cognitively functioning, a person with dementia is not likely to use the phone, but by working with people with dementia through dance, we can connect at the social level and at the social level. bodily, ”she said.

“Dance therapy is about the full range of human expression.… It can be as small as breathing and it can be as vibrant as Argentine tango.”

Even a single session leaves most people with dementia relaxed, she says. The more frequently they do dance therapy, the more they will benefit from it.

As one of over 1,000 certified dance therapists in the United States – a designation that requires a master’s degree – Newman-Bluestein believes dance therapy works best when performed under the guidance of an expert. . But even in the absence of a certified dance therapist, dancing can be beneficial, she says.

“From my perspective, it’s better for them to dance than not to,” she says.

‘I love the feeling’

The residents of Harrison Terrace agree. Hart, the instructor, has years of experience teaching dance, primarily to children. She said she incorporates what she does into her creative movement classes with her younger students to work with the seniors, making sure they have enough time to warm up and opportunities to slow down.

Andrew Flowers, however, doesn’t have to go slow. The Harrison Terrace resident, 70, said he enjoys boogie woogie.

But he loves any type of dance, he added.

“Oh, I love the feeling,” he said. “It gives us something for middle aged people to do.”


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