In the final video recording I filmed of my parents together, Frank Sinatra croons on an old record player. In their senior living community residence, the music tingles my mother, Jean’s ear. She asks my father, “Hey Ette, let’s dance.” She sways to notes which have played inside her mind and body for decades. My father, tentative at first, laughs, while I record this intimate act.
Fast forward to when my mother, alone without my father, takes the dance floor at a senior prom hosted by her care center. She locks arms with my husband, her son-in-law, and the two of them float along while envious residents and guests look on.
We always danced in our family home. My mother always danced, prompted by music that filled a space in her heart, swinging her arms, propelling hips and feet forward. In her final months, dancing was her communication with me, with staff, and her younger self.
Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and writer, ask, “When I’m listening to music, do I want to dance? And when it’s over, has it affected me? Am I now living out those dance steps in the way I interact with people or carry myself down the path?” These and many other questions are now being asked by researchers to learn about how dance lives within each one of us.
Dance Movement Therapy
At a recent presentation on dementia, an older couple approached my table set up inside a senior center where the event was hosted. The husband attended a writing class there and the wife liked to dance. “I have a friend who lives in a nearby senior living center,” the woman shared. “We visited her during one of their dances. The folks with dementia got up to dance. The others sat in the corners.” We agreed those who experience cognitive loss often also lose the filter which causes embarrassment. They become present in the moment and the dance becomes muscle memory and therapy.
Dance or 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.
In my mother’s care home, not only did they host senior proms, but the physical therapist and activities director joined residents for Friday dance parties. Tall and lithe, the therapist enticed the residents to rise from their seats and rock to the rhythms, if it was permissible. Whenever my mother recovered from her many hospitalizations, her body always wanted to join in the flow.
When caring for loved ones who experience cognitive losses, we forget how dancing is a form of communication when other actions fail. It can trigger memories of happy times past, such as a wedding, a junior prom, or a quiet moment with a loved one. The loosening of the physical body opens it up to feel additional sensations. And the dancers are engaged with others in their surroundings, reducing the sense of isolation they might feel.
Connecting Kids to Aging Adults through Dance
When my son was younger, he was exposed to a program called Kindermusik. For over forty years, Kindermusik has been “bringing the unparalleled benefits of music education to children and families around the world.” Their curricula were designed for “non-music teachers” to integrate music into the programming of schools, churches, homes, ensuring every child received similar developmental benefits.
Today, Kindermusik has extended its knowledgebase by developing a program called Bridges to work with seniors. Bridges is a multigenerational music and movement program brought to senior living facilities, community centers, and other organizations to connect generations. In the program, the seniors act as teachers and role models for the children by singing and dancing. The older adults are given a sense of purpose. The children gain through their interactions. And “joy directors” act as go-betweens between the seniors and children, encouraging the connections.
As part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Library of Medicine undertook a systemic review of twelve studies on dance as it related to individuals with Alzheimer’s. While their results confirm a positive effect on the participants’ well-being, “future research focused on these patients should use a more exhaustive methodology and make a more detailed description of these kind of interventions.”
Despite the lack of clinical evidence, we recognize joy in the movement of our bodies. And there was never more bliss on my mother’s face than when my teenaged son or my little niece arrived to take their grandmother’s hand and lead her to the dance floor. Inside her spirit, her body was nimble, her connection to the present intact.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Shanti Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.