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The Social Benefits of Dance for people living with Dementia

Engaging in quality social interaction is crucial for people with dementia as it correlates with lower mortality risk (Kiely & Flacker, 2003), increased life satisfaction, as well as positive affect (Huxhold et al., 2014) among residents in care homes and older adults. Moreover, the current diagnostic criteria for dementia notes an impairment in social cognition. This may include impairments in social judgements of appropriateness, apathy, and social withdrawal (Hugo & Ganguli, 2014). Thus social engagement is a great way to practice and preserve social well-being. Although it is not yet clear whether this impairment is due to the degeneration of parts of the brain (Viskontas, 2007) or an understandable reaction to potential mistreatment because of their dementia diagnosis (Sabat, 2008), it is still important that people with dementia have access to quality social engagement as it is widely known to enrich one’s life.

Fortunately, dance activities show promising potential to stimulate a sense of togetherness and enhance relationships. As early as 1995, dance sessions were being run in special units for people with dementia in Stockholm. When videos of these sessions were analysed by Palo-Bengtsson and Ekman (1997) they discovered that dance is a successful stimulus for social interaction and connection because individuals seemed to return to their old social patterns. Overall, the sessions had an immensely positive impact. These findings align with more recent observations. For example, in Guzmán-García et al.’s (2013) qualitative assessment of a dance intervention for people with dementia in care homes, care staff noticed an improvement in residents’ abilities to socialise and interact with their peers. Dancing also enhanced relationships between care staff and residents, as the activity provided opportunities to build trust, initiate acceptable social touch, exchange learning, and allow for the discovery of details in people’s life history.

Similarly, Hamill et al. (2012) found that the use of movement, rhythm and engagement of the body helps people with dementia reconnect with their own bodies, whilst the shared experience of dance enables people to identify themselves as a member of the group. Thus, for a demographic of people who experience a fragmented sense of self, and experience difficulty orienting themselves in time and space, dance can provide connection and grounding whilst alleviating fear and isolation.

Dance also acts as a medium for non-verbal communication and connection, which is ideal for individuals with dementia as verbal capacity may be impaired. Nystrom and Laurizten (2005) found evidence for this in their analysis of videos of a 10 week dance program for people with moderate to severe dementia. Results showed that dance serves as a non-verbal medium for meaningful self-expression, in which individuals can engage in the richer expression of more varied communicative content. Further supporting these findings, Hamill et al. (2012) and Guzmán-García et al. (2013) have both noted that as verbal communication becomes more challenging for those with dementia, dance and movement can promote a non-verbal dialogue, through which they can communicate and relate to one another more effectively.

This review presents promising findings for the utility of dance to promote quality social engagement in people with dementia, whether that be via returning to old social patterns, enhancing relationships, making one feel as though they are part of a group, or serving as a medium for non-verbal communication. This concludes our three part series of essays on the cognitive, emotional and lastly social benefits of dance for dementia. We hope that such research will continue to promote and strengthen the use of dance in dementia settings, as well as, in a wider sense, encouraging the care sector to explore more innovative approaches to supporting individuals with dementia.

By Hoi Ching Leung


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