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Restoring Memories Through Movies

A theater program is igniting the minds of dementia sufferers.

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.

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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.

spinner image Wizard of Oz - Classic films are used in new program to encourage discussion in dementia patients.
Films like the Wizard of Oz can encourage discussion in dementia patients.
Photo by Stock

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."

Bonus Benefits

The program has another surprising benefit. During the sessions, "you can't tell who's the caretaker and who's the person with dementia," says Taylor-Mead.

"Care partners get to see that their mother, father, husband or wife can still be engaged in arts and cultural programs and have their own personalities and life stories and not be defined by their diagnosis," says Sean Caulfield, a cofounder of ARTZ.

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The program also gives adult children the chance to learn new things about their parents. After watching Paul Robeson sing "Old Man River" in Show Boat, one woman volunteers that she once saw him perform and that "my parents were very happy that a black man at that time had become such a successful singer." Asked what sacrifices they have had to make in life, like Bogie lying to Bergman to save her from the Nazis, another answers, "Having to give up my 4 1/2 pound mini-Yorkie to move to assisted living."

Says Caulfied, "It allows family members to simply be spouses and children without exclusively being caregivers."

Tailoring to Caregivers' Concerns

The staff of ARTZ and the Coolidge know that people with dementia can be anxious in new situations, and work hard to make them feel comfortable and safe. Caregivers can also soothe dementia sufferers in other ways:

  • Physical touch, such as massage, can help the person relax. Reiki, the Japanese healing practice using energy, is another option gaining interest. The Administration on Aging has awarded a grant to train nursing home aides and other health care professionals in how to do reiki. Find a reiki practitioner in your area.
  • Listen to favorite music — whether it's a tape, CD or iPod loaded with songs the person loved — or reminisce together over old photo albums.
  • Continue trying to engage him or her in activities enjoyed before dementia, such as art appreciation or art-making or gardening.
  • If there's too much stimulation or noise, move to a quieter place.
  • Change an activity or create a new environment, whether it's going for a drive or a walk, or reading out loud

For more suggestions, check out the Alzheimer's Association.

A Social Thing

Being at the Coolidge also tackles another struggle dementia patients and their caregivers have: isolation. Both sides can see others struggling with similar challenges, and can socialize with peers. Robert Baker, 74, a Cambridge, Mass., real estate owner and manager recently geared up for his third silver screen trip to the Coolidge. "I don't openly admit to having dementia," says Baker, "and part of me is in denial, but these are my people and I want to be with them. I realize I'm not alone out there."

Susan Forster, an art appraiser, brings her mother to the Coolidge faithfully. "People are very important to my mother," says Forster, who moved her mother from New York to Boston last year so she could live with her. "This is a wonderful way for her to be social."

Perhaps soon there will be similar programs across the country. Not only does the Coolidge plan to offer events again in 2012, next January the theater and ARTZ will propose replicating the program at the annual conference of independent theaters around the country, and offer training sessions to help them create their own version of "Meet Me at the Coolidge."

Sally Abrahms writes on aging and boomers for national magazines, newspapers and websites. She is based in Boston.

Play These Clips And See What Memories They Spark

Wizard of Oz. Go


  • If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
  • What do you think is really at the end of rainbows?

Casablanca. Go


  • What is your love story?
  • What do you love?
  • How did the war affect your family?
  • Have you ever sacrificed for a cause?

I Love Lucy. Go


  • What was the best job you ever had?
  • What was the worst job you ever had?
  • If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

Fiddler on the Roof. Go


  • What would you do if you had all the money in the world?
  • Is there any specific cause that you would support?
  • Would you give money to your family?

Stormy WeatherGo


  • Did you ever go to a dance club? If yes, which one(s)?
  • Who did you dance with when you were there?
  • What were the popular dances of that period?

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