In a study completed this year, researchers at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., looked at Minnesota-based Kairos Dance Theatre's Dancing Heart program, which offers creative dance and storytelling in long-term care facilities. They found the majority of residents' balance and memory either improved or remained the same — notable for this population — and social interaction increased.
"People who normally would not pay attention for more than five minutes were engaged for an hour and a half," says St. Catherine occupational therapist Catherine Sullivan. "The program not only triggered memories from music, but allowed people to create new ones, learn new songs, retell one another's stories and recognize each other."
Arts are a powerful way to communicate thoughts and feelings and should be essential in long-term care, says Susan Perlstein, founder of the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA). "They give people a common language."
With federal and private grants, Perlstein and her colleagues are training health care staff to integrate creative expression into long-term care. She is also helping artists trained to work with young students parlay that expertise into helping older people. Perlstein and company will use Princeton, N.J., Clearwater, Fla., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., as their pilot training sites.
"Learning is lifelong," says NCCA Executive Director Gay Hanna. "It doesn't stop when someone is in a nursing home."
Three programs show creative aging in action.
Maria Genné, a professional dancer and educator, believed if she could get sixth-grade boys to dance, she could get older people moving. The Dancing Heart initiative, part of her Kairos Dance Theatre, has operated in nine retirement communities in Minnesota. Next year, she expects the model to be replicated in New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Arizona. "Dance may be physical, but it's also cognitive and social," says Genné.
Two to three professional dancers, actors and musicians oversee 20 to 25 residents for 90 minutes every week. John and Jeanette Gorman, both using walkers, are regulars. "I've had chronic pain for years, and the program helps me forget about myself," says Jeanette, 85. John's family ran a ballroom, and the couple danced for decades.
"It isn't easy getting older. Moving in itself is a big job, and sometimes upsetting," says John, 86, who believes Dancing Heart has been healing. "It makes us feel young again."