dance therapy: enhancing memory care

Seniors in Senta Perez-Gardner’s dance movement therapy session arrive in wheelchairs and walkers, some with low energy and long faces.

By the end of their hour-long session, they are clapping their hands, smiling, and tapping their toes.

“It’s transformational!” says Perez-Gardner, a certified recreation and movement therapist who gets residents living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease up and moving at United Hebrew of New Rochelle. “Someone who was hunched over may start swaying to a beat. A resident who was lethargic is now moving her shoulders. Suddenly, they’re fully engaged, expressing themselves emotionally through movement.”

Typically, people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias experience anxiety, frustration and fear as their memory loss progresses, causing them to have trouble interacting with others. Dance movement therapy gives them a chance to express themselves in new ways, says Perez-Gardner. “For these individuals, dance and movement give them a way to connect to each other, their families, and to the world around them.”

3 Ways Dance Movement Therapy Makes a Difference

Perez-Gardner and Kelsey Gangnath, also a certified dance movement therapist at United Hebrew, say memory-impaired individuals benefit at least three different ways:

1. They can express themselves. They develop a “physical vocabulary” to communicate with others. The therapists use props such as parachutes and foam noodles to push and pull with one another, helping them connect.

2. Movement reduces anxiety and agitation. Participants do not feel pressured to speak words they can’t remember.
If individuals are agitated and anxious, moving quickly and forcibly to the music eases their frustration.

3. Movement triggers memories. Participants are engaging in something familiar. For example, one resident remembered she and her husband used to dance to a particular song.

Families and friends can also take part. “Everyone feels the joy,” says Gangnath.

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