Dance, Dementia, and Social Citizenship Darren Blakeborough and Shelley Canning - BC Studies no. 202, Summer 2019

In long-term care (LTC), almost half of residents have a diagnosis of dementia, and this number will likely increase. What can we do to make their lives meaningful? Incorporating arts-based interventions LTC programming is key in several respects, not the least of which is overall well-being.

With this as the starting point, an intergenerational dance program that brought together elementary students and care-home residents was implemented in a residential care facility. The goal of the project was to investigate the impact of meaningful activities on the cognitive or physiological health of the residents. It ended up as much more than that.

After the third dance class together, one of the student ballerinas was asked what she was learning about the residents. She paused for a second, smiled and replied, "That they're not scary!"

Imagine Dance–Opportunity for Social Citizenship

Imagine Dance combines dance movement therapy and intergenerational programming. It integrates music, movement, colour, and touch and emphasizes partnerships and relationship development. This programme is built around a series of traditional ballet exercises adapted to the physical and cognitive abilities of residents living with dementia, maximizing contact between children and residents.

"I'm smiling, like, right when I get in the door."—Young Ballerina

Each dance class begins with the name train where the children greet each resident by name. We found that some of the names became fun nicknames reflecting shared jokes and increasing closeness as both children and residents begin to establish a sense of connection and community.

"Being here with these kids just brightens my day."—Resident

Understanding individuals living with dementia only in terms of their disease, deficits, and disabilities undermines their personhood and citizenship; it leads to diminished opportunities and experiences of meaningful engagement.

Assuming a broad view of persons with dementia looks beyond their losses to see their enduring abilities and potential. Arts-based programming takes this broader view.

I used to hate Tuesdays and now it's my favourite day.—Student Ballerina
They're able to dance but in a different way from us.—Student Ballerina
I got a cramp just from watching them.—Resident

This intergenerational dance programme is focused on providing and supporting opportunities for meaningful activities and relationships for both the children and resident participants.

The dance classes were observed to be highly meaningful activities for the residents. Residents who typically refused to participate in other activities or groups would eagerly come to dance classes.

We found that participating in our intergenerational dance programme benefitted both groups. The children developed more positive attitudes regarding aging and older adults, while the elders became recognized and included as full members of the dance class.

we get together as partners and we help them...[and] they help us. They help us help them do better.—Student Ballerina

The residents, despite their losses associated with dementia, had become part of a supportive social community where all members contributed to a shared purpose.

The benefits of arts-based interventions in LTC programming are significant. They can provide an opportunity to move beyond the individual experience to a collective one where there is opportunity for meaningful social engagement. The intergenerational dance programme does this beautifully–as a socially created narrative bringing both the children and residents together.

The project culminated in a recital for friends and family.

As we look ahead to meeting the health needs of people living with dementia in long-term care, it will be increasingly important to acknowledge and support these individuals as social citizenship. Intergenerational dance programming has great promise in this regard.


Rick Collins Photography / Darren Blakeborough fks media

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