Dancing through Dementia: The Benefits of Dance Therapy for People Living with Alzheimer’s
BY ERICA HORNTHAL, LCPC, BC-DMT
Ever wonder how we can effectively communicate with individuals who are living with Alzheimer’s disease? It is possible through the use of alternative approaches and therapies. One such therapy called dance/movement therapy can engage, encourage communication, and provide an outlet for self expression.
Dance/movement therapy, according to the American Dance Therapy Association, is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and spiritual integration of the individual. Dance/movement therapy supports that mind, body, and spirit are connected and that individuals should be treated in such a way that supports integration of these three entities. Dance/movement therapy operates on the premise that our life experiences are held in the body, and that through the use of movement, memories and emotions can be recalled and re-experienced despite cognitive, psychological, or physical impairment.
In regard to individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease, dance/movement therapy has been effective in stimulating social interaction, enhancing mood, reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms, increasing self-awareness and self-expression.
Dance/movement therapy can even maintain and at times improve memory and cognitive functioning. The focus of communication is on non-verbal attunement and mindfulness, both of which become increasingly important as many dementias affect language and cognitive awareness.
Case Presentation: Reflection as a Twenty-Five Year Old
Ms. E, a 94-year-old client, displayed typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. She had severe memory impairment, was not oriented to time or place, and repeatedly checked her purse for her ID. On this particular day, Ms. E was in a group consisting of seven females.
After a brief body warm-up, which included a check-in of each body part, the group was invited to pretend that the space in front of them was a blank canvas and their arms were the paintbrushes. This therapist played soft classical music in the background.
Ms. E, a classically trained pianist and very artistic creative woman, was so enthralled in the painting process. This therapist could see the wheels in her head turning as she painted the air in front of her. After the movement portion came to a close, the group began processing what had taken place. This therapist asked what people had painted and Ms. E proceeded to explain this beautiful scene in her mind.
Ms. E. had painted a boat for the group to go on a cruise. She was then asked what her favorite part about that cruise was and she said “the fresh air and the reflection in the water.” The group was invited to feel “the fresh air.” Many members closed their eyes and took a slow deep breath.
When asked what she saw in the water, Ms. E replied that she saw a reflection of herself at 25 with her man’s arms around her waist. As she explained this, tears began to form in her eyes and she hesitated for a moment. Ms. E concluded that she felt good about the memories even though they brought tears to her eyes. The group concluded and Ms. E opened her purse to look for her ID.
Dance/movement therapy offers individuals the opportunity to being truly present, to engage in their senses, and to tap into their independence, individuality, and self-awareness. It is so much more than “dance.” It is about connecting to the core self and existing in potential and possibility. Remember: we can move the body to move the mind!
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