What attitudes, skills and beliefs are needed to provide excellent quality dance therapy groups to older adults and people with dementia.
As a highly experienced and skilled dance/movement therapist and group leader, I make getting people with dementia to dance look easy. So I’m shocked when someone asks me after a 1.5 hour workshop if they can provide my workshop for me. How can they imagine that they can teach someone else to do what they haven’t yet tried themselves? I guess it’s like watching a professional ice skater. Their grace makes it appear easy. But just try getting up on skates on the ice without experience. We learn as much by falling as we do by smooth moves.
I have been told that the reason my groups are so successful is because I use the Octaband®. Or that I have an excellent music playlist. And where do you get such big balloons, they ask?
Yes, I have built up a huge selection of music in my 40+ career. I not only have an Octaband®, I created the Octaband®. That was not sheer luck, although I do consider myself blessed to have seen the image of the Octaband® in my mind’s eye and had the perspicacity to create the prototype, and the perseverance to manufacture and distribute it. But I would argue that my greatest skill is in observing movement, seeing it within a context, responding to the movement, and continuing to observe people’s movement response.
People often ask me what music they should use. How can I possibly answer that question for someone else? How can I know what music moves them? Or the people they want to dance with? If you use music and it doesn’t move people, change the music. If it works once, it may well work a second time. If you play the same music all the time, you’ll bore yourself and them to tears.
In leading a dance group for older adults and people with dementia, I highly recommend beginning and ending with the same music, but peppering new music, maybe unfamiliar and of different rhythms, throughout. I tend to use music of different eras and cultures to reach and expand people’s musical tastes. Salsa is more likely to get people to move, whether in their seats or on their feet, than any other music in my experience.
Using Props to Motivate Movement
For people with greater levels of dementia, I recommend using props. The sensory and reminiscence factors can motivate movement. The props themselves do not make the group – it’s what one does with them, and especially how.
Ribbon wands are one of my favorite props, and one that I use most often. I use them first because, when I offer them the wand end, they get to make a choice about the color. For people largely dependent upon others, it is so important that they be able to make choices. When I asked the activity professional who was helping me in one group, I said please let them choose the color. Did she? No. Why not? I’m guessing because she saw handing them out saved time. But toward what end? What’s the hurry? The group should be entirely about their choices. Dancing and moving with people with dementia is simply an excuse to be with and get to know them.
In addition to the opportunity to provide choices, the ribbons expand the visibility of their movement – it extends their movement, allowing them to feel more able to influence their environment. It allows me to see the many varied ways that they move, and to name them and their movements. In the order of cognitive or physical skill level, they will bounce the ribbons up and down, or up and down and side to side at the same time. They will do what I call the windshield wiper movement, side to side. They may make small circles, large circles, or figure 8s (the most developmentally advanced). They will use the Space around them differently – close to the body, or further, and the movement may be up high or down low. They may snap their wrists like I like to do, creating a sound like they’re cracking a whip, or looking as though they’re throwing a fishing line, or maybe lassoing someone in. They may twirl the ribbon, or use it in 2 hands, or feel the smooth, silky sensation of the ribbon. When I see them wind the ribbon up, I often think that’s a sign of lessening cognitive abilities; perhaps they are “winding things up”. However, whatever my interpretation or assessment, it’s important to stay open to what may happen, because anything can and does happen. To encourage them to use more space, I may suggest that we fill the air with the color, scribbling as it were. Getting them to move in novel ways can help them create new neural pathways.
A few amusing anecdotes about using the ribbon wands. One woman asked me if I would please iron her ribbon; she didn’t like it folded and wrinkled. The same woman made me promise to bring her purple wand back next time. Another wanted the same color, but longer ribbons – hers were too short. Yet another wanted me to do something about the frayed ends.
Of course, there are those who think the plastic end is some kind of lollipop and put it in their mouths. Often, they’ll refuse to return it to me; they’ll tell me it’s theirs. One man always chooses green – not for the usual reason, that he’s Irish, but because green is Dartmouth’s color. One gentleman likes to unscrew the ribbon out of the plastic.
Taking Care of Props
Of course, the props need to be cared for. I use alcohol wipes to wipe down maracas and the ribbon wands. I then throw like ribbon colors into a tub with Woolite. I rinse them briefly, but don’t worry too much about getting all the soap out – I want the wands to taste bad.
I have tried pinking shears and cutting the ribbons at an angle to keep them from fraying, but to no avail. Recently I tried something new. I cut a “V” into the bottom of the ribbon, and then used clear nail polish on the ribbon ends. So far that seems to have worked.
Maracas are often people’s favorite prop. Engaging in music making is enlivening. I search for maracas and other easy-to-use rhythm instruments at yard sales, party favors, and travels around the world. The orange, yellow and black ones were gifts from Japanese music therapists many years ago when I gave them a workshop about encouraging dance and movement.
For groups where the sensory needs are great and someone may be likely to need soothing or mess with my iPod set-up, lifelike kitties are great. This kitty is one of my most recent assistants. The only problem is group members sometimes argue over who gets to hold it. That’s easily resolved as anyone who wants it, gets a turn to pet and hold her. They’ve named her Cat, short for Catherine the Great.
The Octaband® is a tool for helping participants feel a sense of connection to one another. This is vital, as isolation can be debilitating for people with dementia, especially those who live in an institution.
You can order yours here.
I hope to be offering a training in bringing dance to people with dementia this coming October. Keep your eyes open or contact me for further details. I am also available to provide training for your staff, or for individual supervision – in person or via Skype. Click here for more information.