Jane, a nursing home resident, had suffered multiple strokes and lost all functioning in her body except for the movement in her right hand. Sitting next to her – in the same dance therapy/movement group – was Mary, a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. One day, after several sessions, Mary asked the dance/movement therapist to use balloons (as a prop for the class) so that Jane could participate. While Mary had not spoken much before, she had been paying attention and figured out her new friend’s needs. Both Mary and Jane had connected through the creative arts and were building their confidence through movement therapy.

One program that is using the arts to ease some of the symptoms of dementia and to improve well-being is the Creative Aging and Lifelong Learning Initiative at Wartburg, a senior residential and healthcare provider in Mount Vernon (wartburg.org). Reissa Ress, a music therapist and the arts coordinator at Wartburg, oversees a variety of art therapies to help participants express themselves: dance/movement; music; painting; the TimeSlips program; and puppetry. These activities give participants something to look forward to; instill a sense of accomplishment; and create a stronger connection with their family members and caregivers.

An increasingly popular program is Dance and Movement Therapy (DMT). According to the American Dance Therapy Association, DMT helps people express their thoughts and feelings. A DMT therapist may use props such as foam noodles or balloons to encourage and provide a way for individuals to communicate; stimulate physical and emotional functioning; improve coping methods; and build confidence.

The Alzheimer’s Association cites music therapy as a way to decrease agitation and help behavioral issues associated with dementia. Says Ress, “You’ll find with a lot of [individuals with dementia]… that they won’t be able to hold a conversation with you, but a song that they learned in elementary school is something they can sing back to you without missing a beat.”

Wartburg promotes the emotional and social benefits of music with their choir for people with dementia and their caregivers. Everyone comes together to rehearse and perform. Rehearsals equip participants with singing and breathing techniques. Performances give choir members something fun to look forward to, as well as a sense of independence and accomplishment.

“My favorite benefit of the caregiver choir is that it’s a way to relate to your loved one in a way that you couldn’t before… they are sharing a new experience together,” states Ress.

Lorraine Godwin, a choir participant who cares for her mother Margarita, says, “I am sure the choral group started to give members with memory challenges something that they would enjoy. Truthfully, I am not sure who enjoys it more: the caregiver or the person with memory challenges.”

Peter Pardy, a retired police officer living with dementia, looks forward to the choir each week and helping out. “I fit in and belong to something… I am relaxed and it makes it easier to make friends.”

Painting and working with clay are yet other ways of engaging people with dementia; a painting can speak for them, and convey their memories and feelings.

TimeSlips is a therapeutic storytelling program at Wartburg that enables participants to express themselves and connect with others. With the aid of a therapist, individuals are encouraged to use photographs to develop a story, write it down, and share it with other residents. This program is more about a person’s imagination than their memory.

Another method of communication is through puppetry. It’s like an extension of the person. “The puppets have been able to say things that our seniors wouldn’t say themselves,” says Ress. “A resident – who in time with the progression of her disease – became much quieter than she had [been] in previous years was able to give her opinion, both good and bad. She was able to find her voice again with her puppet.”

“You’ll meet so many people that will tell you – whether they have Alzheimer’s, dementia or not – that they are not creative,” comments Ress. “Sometimes when people are experiencing dementia, they lose their inhibitions and are more willing to try these things. And that is actually a lovely thing because they explore something they never would’ve explored before.”

The Wartburg campus is located in Mt. Vernon, NY. For more information about this program call 914.699.0800 or visit wartburg.org

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Susie Aybar, BSN, MFA, is a writer based in Westchester County. A published poet, Susie facilitates a “Healing Through Writing” class for people who are affected by cancer at Gilda’s Club in White Plains.