A collaborative and innovative new project in Auckland is exploring ways that dance might help people with dementia, adding to a growing body of research on the topic.

As part of the project – a collaborative effort between Alzheimers Auckland, The University of Auckland Dance Studies Programme, and Wellesley Studios, with support from the Gavin and Susan Walker Postgraduate Scholarship in Dance Studies – 12 Alzheimers Auckland clients completed a six-week dance project.

The 12 participants were people living with dementia aged between 51 and 75. Over the course of six weeks, the sessions at Wellesley Studios explored ways to create and perform movement in a variety of fun and interactive ways.

The project was driven by Carlene Newall, who is embarking on a PhD at The University of Auckland and whose research interests lie in the field of dance and dementia.

With the help of a group of postgraduate dance studies students from The University of Auckland, Newall led the project. The dance students partnered up with those with dementia, engaging with them to work through the choreographic exercises set by Newall for stimulating creative movement, and sharing their experience and training.

Musical memories

The sessions allowed for the class to dance together to familiar music hits from the past, allowing the people living with dementia an opportunity to bring their life experience to the students. Dance sessions were filled with laughter and fun, and were followed by time for cold drinks, biscuits, and socialisation.

People living with dementia can be hesitant to try new things and have sometimes let go of hobbies and social connections that enhanced their lives for many years. The people involved in this project were able to engage in a socially interactive activity that was intellectually and physically challenging.

“I’m sure many of the participants were nervous about what to expect going into the project but it was brilliant to see people being so brave and open-minded,” says Newall.

Participation in dance provides a unique combination of activities and experiences for those involved, something that Alzheimers Auckland looks for across their range of socialisation services.

Physical exercise, socialisation and working with others, as well as problem solving, creative thinking, memorising and recalling movement, and interacting with music are all incorporated into dance activities.

It isn’t currently known why dance is having an impact on people with dementia, but it is thought the physical, social, cognitive and creative components may all play a part. Researchers want to find out which activities in a dance class are having the greatest impact, and why.

Boosting wellbeing

British researcher Trish Vella-Burrows from Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health UK has found that dementia sufferers’ wellbeing increases from class to class regardless of the advancement of their condition.

“We have anecdotal evidence for these classes being phenomenal… but it is very important that we get a systematic way of monitoring what is happening for research purposes.”

Newall’s research will also contribute to this growing body of research, and she has learned much from the Auckland project. However, while this project was about dance and dementia, the most lasting impact was the mutual exchange of respect and friendship between participants.

“It was a great group of people and such a positive experience; it was wonderful to see the new personal connections that developed between participants and the friendships that formed,” says Newall.

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