Dancing as Dementia Therapy Dancing as Dementia Therapy

For people living with dementia, dancing can provide more than just exercise and social time. In Scotland and elsewhere, researchers, dementia-care communities, and dance therapists are helping people with dementia recall favorite memories, reduce anxiety, and more through dancing. Why does dance seem to help people with dementia, and how can you find a program? Read on.

How does dance help dementia patients?

Familiar music and movements can spark pleasant, long-ago memories for most people, even if dementia clouds their more recent memories. One dance teacher who works with dementia patients told BBC Scotland that although the seniors he visits weekly don’t always remember his name, the right music and a demonstration of dance steps seems to call forth their muscle memories from decades earlier.

There are other benefits, too, according to the few studies that have been done. Regular dance sessions have showed promise in reducing dementia-related agitation, improving gait and coordination while walking, and boosting cognitive performance.

What types of dance are best for seniors with dementia?

In general, dances that were popular during seniors’ young-adult days are a safe bet, but they’re not the only option. One small study found that a form of dance meditation called Wu Tao, started by an Australian ballerina named Michelle Locke, reduced the frequency of agitation in dementia patients.

Dance-based video games may also help seniors avoid falls and walk more confidently. This is important because people with dementia are more likely to fall and break a bone than seniors without dementia. A study published in BMC Geriatrics compared a group of seniors who did standard strength and balance training with another that did the same training plus dance video game sessions. The dance-game group did better on measures of walking speed and coordination at the end of the study.

Also, regular dance sessions may help reduce or slow the onset of dementia, but sticking to memorized moves doesn’t give you all the cognitive benefits you could be getting. Researchers say that social dances with a partner or a group that require you to improvise a bit in real time or follow someone’s lead are best for maximum cognitive benefit – and they’re fun.

What should you look for in a dementia therapy dance program

If you care for a parent or spouse with dementia at home, ask your local senior center if they offer dance/movement therapy classes. You can also contact the American Dance Therapy Association to find registered and board-certified dance/movement therapists in your area. If your loved one needs a specialized dementia-care community, add a question about regular dance classes to your checklist for visiting potential Alzheimer’s communities.

If your parent or spouse lives in a dementia-care community now and there aren’t dance classes yet, ask the activity director to consider adding them. And when you’re spending time with your loved one with dementia, try putting on music they love and encouraging them to get up and move a bit with you. You don’t have to be a professional dancer or a trained therapist to share the joy of music, movement, and memories with people you love.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

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