INDIANAPOLIS -- "Are you ready to get on your feet today?" dance teacher Dana Hart exhorts a dozen or so seniors and their caregivers gathered in the common room at the nursing home. At first, the elders look anything but ready, slowly rising from their chairs to their feet.
But over the next 45 minutes, many begin to move to Hart's directions. Yes, some shuffle. Others remain in their wheelchairs, stretching out their legs in time or clapping their hands. All smile.
The seniors live at Harrison Terrace, a nursing home in Indianapolis for those with Alzheimer's disease or other memory-related dementias.
The dance class, which meets every other Friday, fits in with the latest philosophies of how to help those with memory-related diseases for which no cure exists. Increasingly, those who treat these patients have realized the importance of the arts. Music, the visual arts and movement can help unlock glimmers of understanding for patients experiencing memory loss.
"It's kind of fun," said Mary Alice Griffith, 74, adding with a twinkle in her eye, "just watching everybody make a fool of themselves."
"We do laugh a lot," added her friend Joe Trice, 76.
Much of the evidence supporting the therapeutic power of the arts is anecdotal. Designing controlled experiments, after all, presents challenges. Still, those who work in this arena say the arts are a natural way to reach a person who is withdrawing cognitively.
"Patients may become more attuned emotionally as their verbal and visual memory begins to deteriorate," said Dr. Brandy Matthews, an investigator for the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center.
Listening to music, dancing, creating or appreciating art can awaken responses. Some studies have shown that after nursing home residents listen to music they become less agitated and aggressive and have fewer hallucinations. Other studies have found that people with another type of dementia develop a compulsion to create artwork, perhaps as a way to channel their emotions and communicate.
Dana Hart, dance instructor at Harrison Terrace in Indianapolis, during a fun musical group activity during her dance class in May.(Photo: Gannett/Frank Espich, The Indianapolis Star)
Art classes added
Harrison Terrace also has recently started offering art classes for its residents, hoping that creating artwork will prove beneficial for them.
"What we try to do here is connect folks with memories from their past, anything that can ignite some sense of remembrance," said Teri House, Harrison's director of marketing and admissions.
Dance therapists have known about the benefits of movement for the elderly for decades, says Donna Newman-Bluestein, a spokeswoman for the American Dance Therapy Association and a dance therapist in the Boston area.
Through her work with seniors with significant dementia, Newman-Bluestein has noted that dance helps them increase their vitality and the number of social interactions they have. She speculates that the movement helps improve their circulation and breathing, which may improve their brain health.
However, the most significant change that Newman-Bluestein sees is the impact dance has on a person's sense of isolation, lack of power and loneliness.
"Because we operate on a cognitive level, a person with dementia is not likely to use the telephone, but working with people with dementia through dance, we get to connect on a social level and on a body level," 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 the Argentine tango."
Even one session leaves most people with dementia feeling relaxed, she says. The more frequently they do dance therapy, the more benefits they will enjoy.
As one of about 1,000 certified dance therapists in the United States - a designation that requires a master's degree - Newman-Bluestein thinks that dance therapy works best when done under an expert's guidance. But even in the absence of a certified dance therapist, dance can be beneficial, she says.
"From my perspective, it's better for them to dance than to not," she says.
'I love the feel of it'
The residents at Harrison Terrace agree. Hart, the instructor, has years of experience teaching dance, mostly to children. She said she incorporates what she does in her creative movement classes with her youngest students to work with the seniors, making sure that they have ample time to warm up and opportunities to go slow.
Andrew Flowers, however, doesn't need to go slow. The 70-year-old Harrison Terrace resident said he likes to boogie woogie.
But he enjoys any kind of dance, he added.
"Oh I just love the feel of it," he said. "It gives us something to do for the middle-aged people."