People with advanced dementia can and deserve to be joyous and exuberant. Dance and dance/movement therapy are the surest ways to achieve that goal.
One of my very favorite quotations is this by Martha Graham, as quoted by Agnes de Mille:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
Every one of us is one-of-a -kind
I apologize if you’ve read this in a previous article I’ve written, and, just a warning, I’m likely to use it again. Vitality speaks to the uniqueness of every one of us. Not just the artists or creatives among us, but every single one of us. People who have been diagnosed – with mental illness, autism, developmental disabilities, dementia. Every one of us is one of a kind. My understanding of the world is that diversity is essential, on every level of life, from the uniqueness of cells to entire cultures. We are supposed to be who we are. Why else would we be created differently? And the closer we can get to that authentic self, the more we contribute what is ours to give. In Gay Hendrick’s coaching webinar for entrepreneurs, he said, “the most important action that you can take to guarantee your own success is connecting with your inner vision.” When people connect to their genuine interests and concerns, they become more lively.
Savoring the sensations and experience of vitality
I believe that is precisely what dance/movement therapists (DMTs) and others who dance with people with dementia are striving for. “When we dance with people with dementia, we invite them to be in their bodies, to savor the sensations and experience of vitality, to be present and to contribute the gifts that only they can bring.” (link to youtube video)
However, neither the general public nor many in the field of dementia care have any idea that people with advanced dementia can be lively. Within the medical model of care, they generally are not. That may be because the people in charge are so busy looking for what people with dementia can’t do, they do nothing to cultivate their gifts. They just hope that the people in their care don’t get agitated or combative and settle for finger and toe tapping and an occasional smile.
Until we get this message across, that people with advanced dementia can and deserve to be joyous and exuberant, our work and the lives of people with dementia will continue to be marginalized.
When I was working on Dancing with Dementia, a paper I wrote for my final project for certification as a movement analyst (CMA), I was surprised to discover that vitality was not considered an indicator of Quality of Life for people with advanced dementia. It was actually quite shocking to discover that the goal of most dance/movement therapists was not even a consideration. In working with older adults since 1981, I have observed vitality to be especially important for people close to the end of their lives, precisely because they will soon be shedding their physical selves. Being lively helps us remember our livelier, younger selves, and assists in reminiscence and the life review process.
Looking into the definition of vitality, I found that The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary defined vitality as “the peculiarity distinguishing the living from the nonliving”; the “capacity to live and develop; also physical or mental vigor especially when highly developed”; and secondarily as “lively and animated character”. (Retrieved 01/17/2013 at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vitality). Vitality is defined here as a fixed state, but I would argue that vitality is experienced along a continuum.
Using Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) as the basis for a formal assessment tool which I created, I analyzed 8 minutes of video footage of one woman taken during three DMT groups over a 7 month period in 2010. The woman was a resident in a skilled nursing facility and was described as having significant dementia.
Connecting to emotions increases life force
Vitality was only one QoL indicator assessed. Increased life force was clearly in evidence at moments when, motivated by her emotions, including interest, surprise, and concern, she used more parts of her body, expressive qualities including strong weight and direct focus, postural shifts, and amount of space used. It was the combination of these factors that clearly demonstrated this woman’s relative engagement in enhancing her quality of life.
Physical and emotional growth require expressiveness
From Heather Hill’s Master’s Thesis, An Attempt to Describe and Understand Moments of Experiential Meaning within the Dance Therapy Process for a Patient with Dementia, p. 112, the following quotation is relevant: “‘Dance is at root an affirmation of the vital body’ (Fraleigh, 1987, p. 55). Dance is a life-enhancing experience.”
Because dance is an aesthetic (affectively vital) expression of the lived body, it is life engendering. The expressive body lives toward the world and others….. Expressiveness is required for physical and emotional growth in lived terms. Vitality depends on some effort of attention toward the world beyond the self, on some measure of expressiveness. (Fraleigh, 1987, p. 56)
In her 1978 lecture “Motion and Emotion” published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy in 2000, Trudi Schoop said about working with clients, “I don’t want to tranquilize: I want to incite – so that we both become totally involved – intensely preoccupied with living.”
And finally, my favorite Schoop quotation which I heard directly from her, although I can’t remember the date, “If I had it all to do over again, I would laugh harder, cry more, tremble more in fear, and stamp my feet more in anger.”