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Taking Steps to Promote Seniors’ Physical and Cognitive Health

MSU Denver dance instructors and students lead weekly movement classes for assisted-living residents.

Leslie Merrill Schmidt, right, co-director of the Dance program at MSU Denver, dances with Ronnie Sherman at Balfour Senior Living as Nicole Predki follows. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Residents at two Denver-area senior-living facilities have been busting a move in the quest for better health, thanks to weekly classes led by students and faculty members from the Dance program at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Senior lecturers Nicole Predki and Leslie Merrill Schmidt, co-directors of the University’s Dance program, said dance is an ideal health-promoting activity for older adults because it taps into different brain regions, promotes neuroplasticity and helps protect against dementia.

“The thought is that it strengthens neuronal connections but also builds new neural connections because you’re using all these different parts of your brain,” Predki said. “I like to think that we’re just constantly building those connections when we’re dancing.”

Predki and Schmidt have taken turns delivering weekly dance and movement classes at a Balfour Senior Living facility near the Auraria Campus for the past couple of years. And last summer, Schmidt led MSU Denver students through a 13-week summer field experience at Park Hill Residence, which is operated by the nonprofit Senior Housing Options and provides subsidized and affordable care to older adults and those living with disabilities.

“We met for an hour and a half every week,” Schmidt said. “It was an intergenerational exchange between the students and the residents at Park Hill. And it turned out to be very successful.”

Nicole Predki, co-director of MSU Denver’s Dance program, supports Judy Stiber and others at a dance class at Balfour Senior Living. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Students take the lead

Schmidt and her students had the residents explore basic movement patterns that are learned early in life and connect the brain to the body. Schmidt said revisiting these patterns has been shown to benefit older adults and adults with disabilities.

The Park Hill residents were guided through breath patterns and scripted movement exercises meant to reinforce that connectivity. A key objective in working with the residents was enhancing their somatic awareness, which involves consciously tuning in to internal body sensations and experiences, Schmidt said.

She noted that the focus on connecting with internal sensations is a departure from the way dance is usually taught. “In traditional dance studies, there’s a really strong focus on the outward appearance of the movement,” she said, “and certainly that’s something that’s important and we have to train for.

“But equally important is to be able to connect into our internal feeling and sensation and then tap into how that can be externally expressed. So rather than trying to make the perfect picture with the body, we’re working with sensing, feeling and that place of imagination and play.”

Leslie Merrill Schmidt, co-director of MSU Denver’s Dance program, says that dance is an ideal health-promoting activity for older people that also protects against dementia. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Each week, Schmidt and her students asked the residents to focus on a different body part, paying attention to proprioception — the sense of where the body is in space. They also explored the stories that might be associated with different parts of the body. Feet and legs, for example, could be connected with grounding, taking a stand or making a path through life.

The residents were then encouraged to draw that body part and complete some creative and reflective writing in response to certain prompts. Later on, they developed group poems and a group dance that evolved into a short dance film.

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The summer field experience appears to have benefited the MSU Denver students as much as it did the Park Hill residents. Fourth-year student Nohealani Rufo was so taken with the process that she wound up continuing her engagement with the residents for her senior project.

Rufo, who was raised in Hawaii, ran a “Love Your Body” workshop series this past fall based on Native Hawaiian hula movements. “(The theme) was ‘cherishing the body that you have’ because it’s the only one that you have,” she said. Most of the series was conducted with the participants seated in chairs to ensure that everyone could participate.

While it took some time to get to know the residents, who ranged in age from 70 to 90, Rufo said it was incredible to see them “light up” when they learned about her culture, including some ghost stories and local legends.

From one week to the next during the workshop series, Rufo found the residents could recall the movements they had previously practiced together. “Movement is much easier to memorize, as opposed to doing anything scholastic,” she said.

Prior to her graduation in December, Rufo had worried about finding a job, but then an unexpected opportunity presented itself.

She was given the chance to apply for an activities coordinator position at Park Hill Residence. She started in January. “I told the residents, and they were really excited,” she said.

Brain movement

Predki and Schmidt take turns offering hourlong sessions at Balfour in different dance styles. Predki leads the first half with ballet and jazz, then Schmidt offers ballet and tap. The classes are held in a small dance studio with mirrored walls and a barre.

Predki, who worked in science laboratories while doing undergraduate thesis work at Columbia University, is fascinated by neuroscience research suggesting that dance and creative movement may ward off dementia. She cited a 2003 study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which tracked the leisure activity of almost 500 people living in an elder-care facility.

The researchers categorized some activities, such as reading or doing crossword puzzles, as cognitive and others, including dance and playing tennis, as physical. They followed the cohort over a number of years to see who developed dementia symptoms.

“They did show that crossword puzzles and some of those things had an impact,” Predki said, “but none of the physical activities did, except dance. It reduced the rate of dementia by 76% in those who participated in dance. It was a surprise because nobody’s really studying dance, which is relegated to this small box of ‘entertainment.’”

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Predki also noted a 2008 study in which researchers conducted neuroimaging studies of amateur tango dancers and found that certain brain regions were unusually active while the dancers were in motion. “It was the motor cortex, the somatosensory cortex, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum,” she said. “All of those together. You’re working on that executive function, long-term memory and spatial awareness.”

Other research has shown that movement through dance helps people living with Parkinson’s disease (Schmidt is currently training with Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, a teacher certification program with the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City). Predki said she has witnessed how talking and moving to a structured rhythm can help those with the disease move better.

Learning new dance steps is also a feat of memory. “You have to memorize (the steps) for yourself, but then you’re also responding to your environment, you’re responding to rhythm, you’re responding to sound,” she said. “And you’re also responding to the people you’re dancing with.”

Dancing is known to release serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain, and improve overall physical fitness.

“With an aging population, you’re having fun, you’re having a community experience, you’re not being judged, you’re in an inclusive community and you’re working on these very important physical skills,” Predki said. “If we can improve balance and flexibility and strength and improve gait, you’re building balance confidence, and that helps people as well. I just can’t understand why we’re not dancing all the time.”

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