Dancing Through Dementia Case Studies

The following case studies are brief examples of group movement therapy sessions. The individuals highlighted were participants in an adult day center in Chicago. Both individuals were diagnosed with dementia and were in the mid- to late-stage of their illness. They were both in the “lower functioning” movement therapy group entitled “Feelings in Motion” that took place once a week over a 7 month period.

Thankful To Be Alive

An 89 year old male client, Mr. L, acquired dementia due to a stroke and suffered from a severe depression. After the stroke, Mr. L was left wheelchair bound and partially paralyzed on his left side. Mr. L always wore his jacket and a golfer’s cap regardless of the temperature indoors or outdoors. On this particular day when Mr. L presented in group he was not wearing his usual jacket and golfer’s cap. He had worn it to the Center, but had allowed a staff member to remove it earlier that morning. At the start of the group, one of the other group members actually commented on how handsome he looked and in response he managed a half smile and expressed gratitude. During the movement portion of the group which consisted of an exploration of different rhythms, Mr. L not only participated, but actually engaged his entire body to the best of his ability. Participants were asked to move their bodies to the beat of 3 different songs with 3 different tempos. The last song that was played was a violin adagio. Mr. L., a former violinist and conductor of his own orchestra, began gently moving his foot and hand to the music. He began to move his arm as if conducting the musicians. Mr. L. always favored his right side so this therapist asked him to try the same movement with his left side. This usually resistant man looked up with big eyes and moved his left leg. This therapist asked the same of his left arm and he proceeded to pick up his left arm by the wrist with his right hand. When it came time to process at the end of the movement session, the subject of thankfulness came up. A group member pointed out that Thanksgiving was just a few days away and so we decided to each say one thing for which we were thankful. To my shock and disbelief, Mr. L who for six steady months had been in a deep depression and had a history of language associated with wanting to die, said he was “thankful to be alive.” Mr. L’s eyes began to tear up. This therapist thanked him for sharing and he smiled again.

Reflection as a Twenty-Five Year Old

Ms. E, a 94 year old client, displayed typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had severe memory impairment, was not oriented to time or place, and repeatedly checked her purse for her ID. On this particular day, Ms. E was in a group consisting of seven females. After a brief body warm-up which included a check-in of each body part, the group was invited to pretend that the space in front of them was a blank canvas and their arms were the paintbrushes. The therapist played soft classical music in the background. Ms. E, a classically trained pianist and very artistic creative woman, was so enthralled in the painting process. The therapist could see the wheels in her head turning as she painted the air in front of her. After the movement portion came to a close, the group began processing what had taken place. This therapist asked what people had painted and Ms. E proceeded to explain this beautiful scene in her mind. Ms. E. had painted a boat for the group to go on a cruise. She was then asked what her favorite part about that cruise was and she said “the fresh air and the reflection in the water.” The group was invited to feel “the fresh air”. Many members closed their eyes and took a slow deep breath. When asked what she saw in the water Ms. E replied that she saw a reflection of herself at twenty-five with her man’s arms around her waist. As she explained this, tears began to form in her eyes and she hesitated for a moment. Other group members were invited to share memories of loved ones. Ms. E concluded that she felt good about the memories even though they brought tears to her eyes.
For More Information For more general information on dance/movement therapy please read Dancing through Dementia: What is Dance/ Movement Therapy? This is the fourth installment of the six-part series, Dancing Through Dementia. To read more about dance/movement therapy please stay tuned. For information on other forms of creative art therapies read Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 1 by Katharine Houpt and to see how the arts can build community please read Building Community through the Arts by Christy Shoenwald.
  Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this article and to S Lymath for the photo.  


Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, received her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy & Counseling from Columbia College Chicago and her BS in Psychology from University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Erica has worked in adult day centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and seniors centers throughout Chicagoland. Erica founded North Shore Dance Therapy in March 2011. In her private practice, Erica focuses on maintaining the integrity and dignity of each client regardless of the progression of their dementia, through holistic body-based interventions. Along with the client, Erica works intensively with families and caregivers to educate them on how to maintain healthy communication and relationships with their loved ones.


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