Catalyzing Movement For Healthy Aging

Have you watched an infant or young child recently? Notice how he or she vocalizes and moves at the same time in coordinated, whole body responses. Growing old challenges us to recall the vitality of our early development, how we once explored and interacted with our environment.  Moving Into the Circle™ is a somatic based approach to communicating and interacting with elders who are losing memory or the capacity to initiate movement for them selves. The program, sponsored by the educational non-profit, Center for Changing Systems, seeks to: stimulate new responses; create fluid dialogue and interaction; and help elders orient and adapt to challenges they encounter as individuals and within communities.

Researchers at UCSF Center for Aging and Memory report that getting physical exercise is the most important way we can help our brains function well. They look at the symbiotic relationship between brain function and body movement in elderly people in order to diagnose illness and develop new treatments. Alzheimer’s Disease, which currently affects 5.4 million older Americans, is a cognitive disorder that has a movement component. The 1 million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease have a movement disorder which affects cognition. These all too common illnesses diminish the ability to live independently, interact with others, and lead a meaningful, productive old age.

Yet people who have Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia, and cannot speak, can often sing songs from the past and remember the lyrics. People with Parkinson’s, who are unable to walk, may be able to dance. Moving Into the Circle™ offers an open-ended invitation to drop beneath speech, memory and planning and access supporting pathways of musicality, feeling and movement.

How can movement provide a vehicle for catalyzing social interaction, creative experimentation, and adaptive learning? This can be difficult to understand if we try to ascribe a specific form of movement or interaction to what is essentially a fluid process. I will give an example from my own experience. One morning I was leading a group program at a memory care unit. We were listening to African music and exploring body rhythm and percussion. Some people were clapping or waving their hands, some were nodding or tapping their feet, and others were simply watching. As I went around the circle, a 100-year-old woman named Ella, who was almost blind, reached out, took my hand and began gently squeezing it. She was not squeezing on the downbeat or on the upbeat, though. Ella was creating her own syncopated rhythms using touch and movement – she was jamming! I raised my other hand and said, “This is Ella’s rhythm,” and by squeezing the air, reproduced the rhythm patterns I was receiving so that others in the group could enjoy Ella’s beat.

The philosopher Alan Watts once said, “You can’t be spontaneous within reason.” The form that spontaneous action and interaction may take is not important here. Moving spontaneously is about being in relation from wherever we find ourselves right now, and inviting something new to arise in each moment. If I had held onto an idea of what that something should look like in my head, I might have missed Ella’s beat.

People who have lost their memory and cannot plan ahead have the capacity to be masters of improv. Can we develop the capacity to be present with them in a state of open awareness and be available to respond?  How can we reach out with interactive skills and strategies to individuals and families coping with long­ term illness? 70% of people who have Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia, live at home, with family members providing for some, or all, of their care.  These families, while losing the relative they once knew, must care for, and interact with, their loved one as they are now.

Here is an example of a husband communicating with his wife during one of our group programs. Angela had lived in a memory care facility for many years. She was confined to a wheel chair and was usually unable to communicate verbally, but she was open to interacting with others. She had a healthy, devoted husband, John, who was always by her side. When we interacted in the group, John would often coach his wife saying, “ move your arms” or “hit the balloon” and he would try to move her arms for her. (This happened regularly despite my guidelines encouraging everyone to move in what ever way they wished.) One day Angeline and I were gazing into each other’s eyes and we began a subtle, nonverbal exchange, a ‘face dance’. Angeline was very adept at this mode of conversing, and we were happily allowing our facial expressions to reflect a confluence of fluid, dynamic feeling, when suddenly John reached across and began moving her arms, saying “Move your arms, Angela.” Ordinarily, Angela did not express herself coherently with words, but this time she looked straight at me and with a ‘what can you do’ look said, “He doesn’t know anything.” She was excusing his deficit; acting as the devoted spouse she had been to this man for many decades.

John’s communication style, despite the best of intentions, closed him off to new opportunities to connect with, and support, his wife. In contrast, Angela was able to communicate within a nonverbal format, and also function at a higher level of speech and cognition.

My interest is in helping people ‘move into the circle’ of their lives and access their available capacities with support from their peers and their families. I lead group programs for elders at assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care facilities in the SF Bay Area. I also offer educational support for families, care professionals and youth volunteers. My hope for the future is that elders, at any age and at any level of health, will be able to interact with younger people and that they will once again be welcomed as vital members of our communities.

Below are feedback comments from elderly participants in the Moving Into the Circle™ group program:

“This makes me want to jump and not just be an onlooker.” B., Pacifica Senior Living, San Leandro
“It’s an immediate connection with people through body motion! It produces relief.” T., Life’s Neighborhood, Aegis of San Rafael
“I just followed the rhythms wherever they wanted to go. I had never tried that before.” G., Personal Care, The Redwoods
“I was impressed with the freedom.” T., Health Unit, The Redwoods
“Anyone can have it!” F., Windchime of Marin Memory Care Facility
“I have always been a part of this Circle!” I., Life’s Neighborhood, Aegis of San Rafael
“Our bodies don’t lie. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. When I did something, I came alive!” B., Life’s Neighborhood, Aegis of San Rafael