The residents at Garden View Care Centers favor Elvis. Each morning at 9:45, you’ll find residents and staff leaving their other activities to enjoy a burst of dancing. Just a few minutes of music and motion sets the tone for a good day, says Rhonda Uhlenbrock, director of dementia programs.
Uhlenbrock was one of the originators of Garden View’s ‘Happy Feet’ program in 2003. “We wanted to find ways for our residents to experience positive physical touch, not just the interactions when they were being assisted with bathing or meals,” she says. The program was initiated with residents experiencing late-stage dementia, but its popularity soon led to its expansion to all three Garden View locations.
“Some of our older men enjoy dancing with the pretty, young staff,” Uhlenbrock laughs. Other residents who are in wheelchairs dance by having their legs moved or patted by staff members. And the benefits go beyond physical mobility and enhanced staff-resident relations. “People with dementia may recognize music from a happy time in their life and talk about that memory,” Uhlenbrock says.
While Garden View’s Happy Feet program is relatively informal, there is a more structured dance therapy program locally. Dr. Jean Krampe, assistant professor of nursing at Saint Louis University, led a research team that studied specific benefits of dance for older adults.
Known as Healthy Steps, the program was created by Drs. Joel and Marc Lebed, and Sherry Lebed Davis, a dancer and expert in movement therapy for cancer patients. They dubbed the technique the ‘Lebed Method,’ and offer instructor training and certification.
“We choreographed a Healthy Steps dance routine for this study focused on low-impact flexibility, strength and stretching movements that could be performed seated or standing,” Krampe says. “We used a team of certified Lebed Method instructors who were experts in older adults, to ensure each movement included in the routine would not aggravate hip or knee pain.”
Each Healthy Steps class begins with a ‘lymphatic opening’ (warm-up), that uses basic breathing and range-of-motion techniques sequenced to impact the lymphatic system, and the movements are choreographed to music that appeals to the participants.
“This is the third small study we have completed with older adults and dance-based therapy,” Krampe says. “This study, focused on older adults with knee and/or hip pain, was the first chronic-condition study we’ve completed. We have positive preliminary results, but we need to conduct a larger study to establish the therapeutic dose effect, and confirm the cumulative effect of dance-based therapy for older adults with osteoarthritis of the knee.” The 12-week study was conducted with 34 residents of a senior-citizen apartment complex, mostly women with an average age of 80.
Study results were published in the journal Geriatric Nursing, and reported that participants experienced less pain and an ability to walk faster at the conclusion of the study period. The findings are significant because older adults who walk too slowly are more likely to fall, become hospitalized or require care from others, Krampe says. “Walking just a little more rapidly can make enough of a difference for a person to get across the street more quickly or get to the bathroom faster, which keeps them functional and independent,” she adds. “In our study, those who danced didn’t walk dramatically faster, but they had a meaningful change in their walking speed.”