Is your loved one finding it so difficult to communicate that they’re withdrawing from the world? It can be heartbreaking to witness the loneliness that comes with dementia, especially if you believe nothing can be done.
The truth is that there are a variety of effective ways to cut through the isolation. One newer method you may not have heard about is dance therapy. A growing number of people are discovering how moving to music offers those at all stages of dementia a fun way to interact with others and build relationships.
Tapping Into Internal Resources
Dance therapy, which uses movement and dance to connect the brain, emotions and motor functions, gives people with dementia “a place where they are seen, heard and valued for who they are,” says Donna Newman-Bluestein, a long-time movement and dance therapist in Boston. “They may not have any verbal language, they can have virtually no memory, but they can still participate.”
The most important benefit of dance therapy is that participants get to “feel more connected to themselves and to their own bodies, their memories, their thoughts, and to other people,” she says, adding that everyone comes out of a dance therapy session feeling livelier.
“Generally, they are not moving at all...[so] their internal motivation needs to be tapped--and the way that I tap motivation is through the relationship,” says Newman-Bluestein. “I shake their hands, I make eye contact, I look at them and I make sure that … I'm seeing recognition in their eyes, [that] they know I'm there and they know I'm looking at them.”
On days when she’s slow to greet everyone, Newman-Bluestein often asks participants if they feared she would forget them. “Without fail, they all say yes,” says Newman-Bluestein, who says she believes dance therapy provides “an antidote” to any feelings of abandonment or powerlessness participants may be experiencing.
To Natasha Goldstein-Levitas, a Philadelphia-based movement and dance therapist who also works with people with dementia, a dance therapy group is a place where people who often feel anxious and lost and disconnected can feel “safe and held-- it becomes a nurturing space.”
On top of that, dance therapy helps energize people. Some participants can't remember their own name, but “when you turn on Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘A Tisket, A Tasket,’ they're singing right along, and they remember all the words and they're smiling as they're singing,” she says.
Self-Expression Through Movement
Although some research suggests that social dancing may benefit people with cognitive impairment, dance therapy (which is a form of psychotherapy) is nothing like a dance class. “We're not teaching them movement, we're using the movement they have,” says Newman-Bluestein, who co-wrote a manual to help dance therapists and caregivers communicate nonverbally with people with dementia.
So, what does a dance therapy group look like (and where can you find one)?
At the beginning of each session, participants gather in a circle. “In that way everyone can see each other, and everyone feels validated and I'm kind of equal,” says Goldstein-Levitas. The therapist gets things rolling by playing lively music that encourages participants to move their fingers or toes or other parts of the body. Most of the moves are done in a chair, since many participants use mobility aids.
Then, to encourage more movement, the facilitator might name the ways different participants are moving. For instance, Goldstein-Levitas describes how she may comment how Miss J is starting to tap her toes or how Miss S starts shaking her shoulders.
“So, I say, ‘Okay, it looks like we have some rhythm in our toes,’ and then the group will kind of catch onto that,” Goldstein-Levitas explains. And while she starts with a loose idea of how the session will proceed, she says, “Nine times out of 10, the more rigid plan will go out the window.”
Redirecting Challenging Behaviors
Providing dance therapy to people with dementia is not without its challenges. As Newman-Bluestein points out, most of the people she works with don’t follow directions well. “If I asked them to raise their arms up high, most of them simply wouldn't do it” she says. Instead, she says she follows their movements, and that eventually, “they begin to follow me because I'm following them.”
People with dementia also tend to get distracted easily, so when she wants to redirect participants, Goldstein-Levitas often talks about food, which she says is typically a “huge hit.” In one group, a conversation about grilled hot dogs and hamburgers stirred up memories of childhood family barbecues. In another, talking about ice cream led to some participants reminiscing about—and then acting out—their mothers churning ice cream. “The movement kind of becomes symbolic of whatever we're talking about,” she says.
Using props such as scarves, brightly colored parachutes or handheld musical instruments can also anchor and energize the group, she adds. If one woman is shaking a tambourine and the woman across the circle is shaking a maraca (a gourd-shaped rattle), “you know they're in rhythmic synchrony, they're moving together and they’re kind of feeding off of each other's energy in a way….they're supporting each other.”
As well, dance therapy can help alleviate the agitation or aggression often seen in those with late-stage dementia. Newman-Bluestein gives participants balloons or blow-up baseball bats to help them safely release aggressive feelings.
“I’m always surprised by who puts the most energy into it; it could be the smallest, tiniest, frailest person in the group, who looks like they're barely paying attention, and suddenly the balloon is in front of them and they smash it,” she says. “The entire group giggles when this happens because they know what it means to have that energy inside them and it's waiting to be tapped.”
How Dance Therapy Benefits Caregivers
People with dementia aren’t the only ones who can get relief from dance therapy. Family caregivers may find it easier to provide care after a group dance session as their loved one may be calmer and less combative. “Maybe after that dance therapy session they're having a better day because they felt validated and they were able to physically move and express themselves and laugh a little bit,” says Goldstein-Levitas. Another benefit? Seeing a loved one “perk up and talk and reminisce--that person who gets lost inside with the dementia diagnosis starts to come out.”