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Watch Dance Bring Joy to People Living With Dementia

A choreographer shows how dancing enriches the lives of those with the condition


Part of the Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Personal Stories, Research, Advice Special Report

The reach of dementia goes far beyond memory loss. It often leads to depression and an overall lower quality of life. But happiness and joy don’t singlehandedly derive from our intellectual capacity to socialize and engage with others. We can also experience connection through movement and the arts, which is what a choreographer in Scotland has brought to people living with dementia in his area — by dancing with them for more than 10 years.

Dancing With People Living With Dementia

The above video from BBC Scotland shows just a snippet of the work choreographer Chris Wilson is doing with students from the University of Edinburgh.

“What I was noticing is that whilst they might not remember me and my name on a weekly basis, they’re remembering what I was doing with them, so it was almost like this concept of muscle memory,” Wilson said in the video. “These exercises, which I repeat on a weekly basis — [the older people with dementia] were getting better. They were getting faster at learning them. Some of [the exercises] are specifically targeted at coordination pathways.”

The University of Edinburgh got involved with Wilson’s project more recently, sending students to gather data from the classes. Wilson hopes this work will “reinforce [his] hypotheses about dance as a form of therapy.” Based on the reactions and facial expressions of the people dancing in this video, there’s a good chance it will.

“I just enjoy getting moving and the atmosphere and that sort of thing,” one woman said.

“It’s fun, yes — great fun,” another said. “It’s just a bit of a laugh, and it’s natural. I think people forget about being who they are and everything. They all join in. Otherwise we would be sitting like this — sad, for two hours.”

A Mind-Body Experience

Next Avenue has covered the ways in which dancing can have significant effects on brain health and aging, but that’s not necessarily what’s happening in the case of these dancers. Here are a group of people already living with dementia, using dancing as a mechanism to cope, and make life with the disorder feel a little more pleasant.

In our story about the effect of dancing on the brain, we cited a 2015 systematic review of 18 dance intervention studies on older adults, which suggested that dance, regardless of the type, can significantly improve strength, endurance and balance. So while these people aren’t turning to dance to prevent dementia, the exercise is very plausibly doing good work for their bodies as well as their minds.

“Dance is a complex activity that combines mental, physical, emotional and social aspects that together can be beneficial to your brain and overall health,” Dr. Joe Verghese, professor of neurology and medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain told us for that story. He also said that dance can reduce feelings of isolation and social stress, and the music played during dancing can provide an emotional mood boost if the songs connect someone with a positive memory from the past.

By Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel is an editor at Next Avenue. Her work has appeared in Minneapolis-St. Paul's alt-weekly City Pages, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Stereogum.com, The Riveter Magazine, VICE's Live Nation TV, 89.3 The Current and more. She most recently worked as an editor for a B2B magazine in New York City. She holds a degree in journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities where she was the editor-in-chief of the student magazine, The Wake. Reach her by email at [email protected].

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