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Restoring Memories Through Movies

A theater program is igniting the minds of dementia patients

Four times a year, the restored 1933 Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., outside Boston, is filled with walkers and canes belonging to people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, as well as their adult children, spouses and paid caregivers. The tailor-made programs are helping improve the mental and physical conditions of the patients.

See also: Museum art sparks memory in Alzheimer's patients.

What it is

During these special quarterly programs, silence is not golden. The audience is expected to sing along to movie musicals — On the Good Ship Lollipop, for example — and pipe up when they recognize famous lines, such as Humphrey Bogart's never-to-be-forgotten, "Here's looking at you, kid." As they wait for the program to begin, photos of Hollywood movie stars and comedians from their era — Cab Calloway, Clark Gable, Abbott and Costello, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo — flash on the giant screen while music popular in the '30s, '40s and '50s wafts through speakers.

"When I watched, I got a little choked up," says Betty Smith, 73, who came from an assisted living facility. "I may not have sung out loud, but I sang in my heart!"

A facilitator engages the audience, with interactive guessing games about a star or movie, followed by an explanation of the five-minute segment they will see. Afterward, questions draw them out about their life, past and present.

The effect

Peggy Cahill, program coordinator at Artists for Alzheimer's (ARTZ), a nonprofit based in Woburn, Mass., that creates cultural opportunities for people with dementia and their caregivers and that developed the Coolidge program, noticed something interesting on the feedback forms she received from nursing staff and family members: Many noted dementia participants came away with more positive moods than usual and a greater attention span that lasted beyond the theater experience. They were also more communicative and engaged with staff and peers, and reminisced about their past.

Caregivers reported a reduction of symptoms often associated with Alzheimer's, including anxiety, aggression, apathy and agitation. "Surveys showed that even a week after the event they were still talking about it, asked to go again and encouraged others to join them. That dispels the belief that people with Alzheimer's can't look toward the future and only live in the present," says Cahill.

Patty Marquis, a social worker, has brought her parents, Bob and Elaine, to the program twice. "My father knows all the actors and names them the way he used to when he was younger," says Marquis, 61. "We are laughing together. Usually I go to their assisted living place and just sit with them for lunch. This is an outing!"

Families give up on these people and don't do anything to stimulate them, says Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, the former associate director of the Coolidge who worked there for 10 years. "Our program isn't going to cure them of Alzheimer's, but it opens doorways to their memory. They are totally present in the moment and answer questions correctly."

Next: Other ways caregivers can soothe dementia patients. >>

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