When he looked at the library’s flyer announcing an outreach event for Dementia Friendly Washoe County, it piqued his curiosity. He knew a lot about aging since he’d covered it for seven years for the California Health Report – one of the few reporters nationally writing about aging full time — so Matt Perry wanted to know more.
The next day at the dance studio he attended, The Ballroom of Reno, he was standing next to one of its managers and told her about the dementia-friendly event. “What do you think of creating a dementia-friendly dance class here?” he asked. During his years writing about aging he considered dancing the best intervention to stop, delay, or perhaps even prevent dementia. It had everything elders needed in a single activity: physical movement, mental strategy, community connection, and musical immersion – which sparks several different parts of the brain. “Let’s do it,” she replied without hesitation.
At the outreach event, Perry discovered that in less than a week the monthly Dementia Friendly Washoe County (DFWC) meeting was being held. So he and two representatives from The Ballroom attended to present the dementia-friendly dance class idea. Immediately, DFWC partnered with the enthusiastic group and provided seed money to launch the class.
With help from the Alzheimer’s Association, three couples were identified, two test classes were organized, and the first class was held just two months after the idea was conceived. It was a great success, and soon the dancers were beginning to see the benefits.
“She’s begun to remember things from the past that were beyond her reach before dancing,” says Mike Grimes of his wife Helen, a former dance teacher for many decades who now lives with Alzheimer’s disease. “This class has been wonderful for us both.” – 2 –
Ron Brown, who is experiencing the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease, says he has two left feet. But he and wife Donna have discovered how much they enjoy partner dancing. In fact, after taking classes for a month, one evening at home when the power was out, they turned on battery-powered candles and a battery-powered radio. “We listened for a few minutes and Ron suggested we dance,” says Donna. “Before taking dance class that would have been the last thing he would have said. We danced close and held onto each other after a song was over and waited for the next song.” And she adds that dancing has spilled over onto other parts of their lives. “A day doesn’t go by that we don’t pass each other with a little smile, a little touch for each other, or a little kiss.”
Research shows that partner dancing is a highly effective intervention for elders facing physical and cognitive changes. It can reduce joint pain, improve mental clarity, and secure emotional bonds. It’s most beneficial when done three or four times per week, so repetition is key.
In 2020, The Ballroom, in partnership with DFWC, has ambitious expansion plans so that more elders can participate and hopefully dance several times per week to obtain maximum benefits. The Ballroom plans to offer the class six times per week by April, and 12 times per week by the end of the year.
The popular class has quickly gained both momentum and notoriety. It was recently featured on the local TV show, Aging and Awesome: https://dementiafriendlynevada.org/communities/washoe/news-in-washoe/
“Everyone has just improved so dramatically,” says lead dance instructor Desirée Reid. “And not just physically but mentally as well. You can see the improvement with everyone week to week.”
“This is the most wonderful collaboration I’ve ever been involved with,” says Perry. “Between The Ballroom and Dementia Friendly Washoe County, we’ve been able to move quickly to create something that everyone loves and really makes a difference for those with dementia and their care partners.”
Donna Brown makes it even more personal. “Dance has been a great addition to our life!”