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Senior woman participating in dance movement therapy at United Hebrew elderly care home.

5 Ways Dancing Makes a Difference for Those with Dementia

Seniors in a dance movement therapy group at United Hebrew of New Rochelle arrive in wheelchairs and walkers, some with low energy and long faces. But by the end of their hour-long session, which may include stretching, dancing, and floating a parachute into the air, there’s a tangible shift in the group’s mood.

That transformation is why we added dance and movement therapy to our creative arts therapy program, which is part of our approach to memory care. These therapies help our residents keep their minds and body active, and so much more. We asked two of United Hebrew’s highly-trained therapists, Senta Perez-Gardner, a certified recreation and movement therapist, and Kelsey Gangnath, a certified dance movement therapist, to talk about the benefits.

Here are 5 ways dance movement therapy makes a difference for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to Gangnath and Perez-Gardner:

  1. Helps residents express themselves in new ways: Dance movement therapy allows those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to move as a means to communicate, which helps them develop a “physical vocabulary,” according to experts. One way we do that at United Hebrew is through props. Props like parachutes and foam noodles enable push and pull, and offer ways for our residents to connect with other people, especially those with limited mobility. You see eyes light up. People who may have arrived at the session in a wheelchair may get up to dance. Suddenly, someone who hasn’t been very responsive is tossing a balloon. It’s contagious.
  2. Reduce anxiety and agitation: Dance movement therapy keeps people engaged, even when they are not speaking. When they don’t have the pressure of speaking words they can’t remember, they can relax. Someone who is agitated and anxious, which is common among this population, may move fast and strong to the music, which eases their frustration It eases the fear, anxiety, agitation and other behavioral issues that are common with dementia.
  3. Trigger memories: If our residents are having trouble recalling the past, dance can help trigger memories because it creates a social interaction that is familiar. Our therapists select music and dances that may have cultural meaning, as well. One resident recently mentioned she used to dance with her husband to a particular song, and it sparked a conversation with fellow residents about their lives and their families. People express feelings in a way that may not be communicated to a family member or a nurse or an aide. In that way, the therapy is contributing to their care.
  4. Improves overall well-being: At the beginning of each session, we assess a resident’s movement patterns and behaviors as a clue to the way they are thinking and feeling. Sessions typically include a warm up, moving the arms and legs, and looking and reaching up to elongate the body. Dance movement therapy helps regulate mood, loosens people up physically, and stimulates the senses. These therapies offer a way for all of our seniors a healthy way to enjoy daily life.
  5. Improves quality of life: There is a transformation that takes place in our residents who participate in dance movement therapy. Someone who started a session hunched over ends up swaying to a beat. A resident who was lethargic begins tapping her toes. Suddenly, they’re fully engaged, expressing themselves emotionally through movement. What’s more, visiting friends and family can take part, too. Whether it is performing rhythmic movement, or engaging with family and friends, dance movement therapy gives everyone a chance to feel joy together.

See a session in action!

Creative arts therapies are offered at United Hebrew’s skilled nursing facility, and at Willow Towers Assisted Living and Willow Gardens Memory Care facilities. Over 100 hours of therapeutic programs are offered to hundreds of residents each week in specialties including music, art, recreation, and now, dance and movement.