Music and dance programs increase quality of life for our older population
Thursdays at Allegro Community School for the Arts is alive with senior citizens. Not just a school for young music and theatre students, Allegro’s goal is to bring the arts to all. Now they are reaching out to the senior demographic with their THRIVE program, designed to bring the joy of the arts, especially music and dance, to those who are older, regardless of arts background or diminished physical ability.
Whether it’s music, dance, theater, painting, or other forms of creating something beautiful, it’s been proven through research — study after study has shown that participating in various forms of art provides a mental and physical boost to all ages. And who is more in need of this than our senior population? All of the baby boomers will be aged 75 or older by 2035, which means that before we know it, we will have a larger population of older adults in our community.
The Allegro Community School for the Arts, which has always worked tirelessly to bring the arts to everyone in our community, understands this. Led by coordinator Cecilia Dohm, who is working towards her master’s degree in clinical mental health and dance therapy, the intergenerational THRIVE program that features music, dance, and art is specifically designed for those over the age of 55 to encourage them to engage in the arts, as opposed to merely observing them.
So every week, three music and movement programs are offered for seniors. The classes are held in Allegro’s dance studio, a large, brightly-lit open space with brightly painted walls in purple and pink; the setting is energizing and calming at the same time. While movement and dance are very therapeutic for seniors, the setting is about as far from a medical, therapy type setting as you can get.
About 60 percent of the guests take the class standing (and dancing!), and some stand with walkers, or sit on a chair or in a wheelchair. But all are beaming and moving with the music, and in the process increasing strength and balance, all while having a blast.
All sorts of music is used in the classes, from Big Band pieces to popular hits from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to opera, ballet, and musical theatre to disco. But the most popular music with the seniors is The Beatles.
The guests, about half women, half men, range in age from about 65 to late eighties. All enjoy the program immensely but, Cecilia said, “It’s the men who mostly come up to me and tell me how much it engages them. And these are men with no musical or dance backgrounds; they’re engineers, mathematicians, retired Air Force. It just shows how this program can affect people.”
Dance for Parkinson’s®
One of the programs included under the THRIVE umbrella is Dance for Parkinson’s ®. The Mark Morris Dance Group created Dance for Parkinson’s ® in 2001 for patients, their families, and care partners to help with movement that includes balance, sequencing, rhythm, and aesthetic awareness and draws from ballet, tap, folk, and social dancing. Cecilia studied this program and brought it to Allegro in 2018. The program is steeped in research which includes how dance helps Parkinson’s patients with movement, but also psychological aspects, interpersonal skills, problem solving, and emotional and cognitive skills.
The program has been well received around the country. Cecilia shared the story of a man who participated in a class in New York City who had diminished abilities. He could only use his thumb and was wheelchair-bound. He was a fervent student and despite his limitations, every weekend he would take the train to get to class. He proves that the limitations we put on ourselves are in our minds. “It is amazing to see participants in the Dance for Parkinson’s ® program. Just because their body is paralyzed doesn’t mean they can’t dance in their mind,” Cecilia said.
Dance for Dementia
Researchers from the Department of Dance and Department of Psychological Medicine in New Zealand found that the use of familiar music and the natural gestures of dance can help to promote a better quality of life for those living with dementia. The memory stimulation, mood moderation, and social interaction proved to be a positive counterbalance to diminishing cognitive recall. The challenge for dementia patients can be the perceived dangers of leaving their comfortable surroundings, but Allegro is working with local private agencies to bring the program to facilities where patients live to alleviate this problem.
Props are used for this program, such as scarves and baby dolls, to spark memories of holding a child, or being a child. One of the many side effects of dementia includes depression, and recalling these memories can help counterbalance these feelings. Caregivers have noticed that those with dementia who participate in a program that uses music along with safe, guided movement have improved day-to-day mood, decreased physical deterioration, and are easier to care for. “Patients with dementia may have memory that is waning, but it is still within their body’s system, and through this program we hope to help them retrieve good memories,” Cecilia said.
Caregivers have also benefited from these programs. Having activities to do with their loved ones with dementia increases the quality of their relationships by creating shared interests.
The THRIVE program is not limited to these two classes. A Seated Dance for Older Adults class is also offered, and there are many other programs available for senior students. There is an adult choir and beginning ballet classes for adults, aimed for dancers with no previous training, as well as pottery, drawing, and even basic craft classes.
The classes are still catching on as Allegro is working on getting the word out to the senior community, but everyone who comes to the programs returns again and again. Cecilia said, “Once you come in once, you’re hooked. Music and movement reach the part of the brain that’s connected with emotion. And you can tell how it affects our guests, both the seniors themselves as well as their families. People are brought to tears sometimes as they feel what the activity can do for them. It’s really empowering and uplifting. And the guests bond with each other, it really becomes like a family. We encourage participation from family, and sometimes you’ll see teenagers out there dancing with their grandparents. It’s truly heartwarming. Some of our staff can’t even watch the classes any more because it brings them to tears.”
Cecilia added, “Dance is for everyone. It is for all levels and all body types, and all physical and intellectual abilities. It’s mostly about relationships, building community. Camaraderie. Learning something new together is exciting and the arts are a beautiful vehicle for that. Don’t be afraid to try something new.”
For more information about Allegro’s programs, contact Cecilia Dohm at email@example.com or visit their website at allegrocsa.org
Come on out and give it a try!
A variety of classes support and welcome all, including those with invisible disabilities and physical disabilities, even those with wheelchairs and walkers. The classes include a variety of modifications for all movement abilities. Volunteers are present in all classes to assist in standing, sitting, and serving as a helpful friend if needed. Caregivers and family are welcome (or, in the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia, required) and encouraged to participate too!
THRIVE Program Schedule
11 a.m. – 12 p.m., Dance for Dementia
1 – 2 p.m., Dance for Parkinson’s
2 – 3 p.m., Seated Dance for Older Adults
12 p.m., Community Choir for Older Adults
Photography: Dancing Through Parkinson’s program of Invertigo Dance Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Joelle Martinec, Ginger Sole Photography