Published in Segerstrom Center's April 2016 magazine

Keeping the Beat in Our Community

A partnership with Alzheimer’s Orange County brought music and movement to early-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers and their family members and caregivers.

Recently, the Center approached Alzheimer’s Orange County (AOC), a center for Alzheimer’s resources. Was there a way we could, through the arts, help their organization? The offer was quickly accepted, and the result was a series of three BrainDance workshops led by Maria Simeone, who specializes in movement-and-music classes for all ages.

More than 84,000 people in Orange County are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Since 1982, AOC (formerly the Alzheimer’s Association, Orange County Chapter) has been dedicated to providing quality care and support services to residents of Orange County who are affected by the disease or other related dementia, as well as to their families and caregivers.

The partnership with the Center began with an assessment of AOC’s goals: to help improve the quality of life for those coping with this disease and provide opportunities for social interaction and learning to their clients. Studies have shown that music and dance can help, clearly something the Center can provide. After everyone agreed on the workshops, we asked how this could be made easy for the organization and participants. Although the Center frequently holds workshops on its campus, it was agreed that those participating in BrainDance would be more comfortable attending at the AOC headquarters in Irvine, where they would be familiar with the building and the personnel.

“Music and the arts have long been found to unleash therapeutic effects on those who are struggling with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia,” said Jim McAleer, president and CEO of AOC. “We are pleased to partner with the Segerstrom Center to be able to offer this incredible program that will help enrich the lives of those we serve.”

BrainDance was developed by Anne Green Gilbert, who founded the Creative Dance Center in Seattle. The program centers on a series of simple exercises completed with music and replicates movements we make as babies while our brain is developing. “These fun, interactive workshops teach simple brain-based movements that can improve the daily quality of life for each participant,” says Simeone. “Rhythm keeping is important for cerebellar function, balance, memory and accessing language. The socialization aspect is also very important, and we make it fun for everyone.”

For everyone who attended the BrainDance workshops it was a welcome opportunity to have some fun and interact with other people. “Jack* and I just loved the new class,” said one attendee. “The music and dance moves lifted the mood of all involved, not to mention how our brains absorbed the new info and expanded our horizons! Th is was a happy and inspiring class.”

The three workshops build on each other, adapting to the needs and abilities of the participants. Each one started with deep-breathing exercises that help improve oxygen intake and blood circulation to the brain—key elements to reducing stress and building easier movement. The exercises were easy enough for everyone to do at home as well.

In one workshop focused on “feeling the beat,” participants first moved one body part, then two, then three, to a beat from Simeone as she used a small drum to set an easy pace. They were encouraged to move around the room while doing this exercise, which helped improve balance and interaction with other people. Later, each person used a small drum to beat out a rhythm, and the group sang a short song while keeping a specific tempo with the drums. There was no pressure—everyone did the exercises as they could.

“I know how much Max enjoyed every gathering,” said a participant. “It was amazing to see the impact of the Center’s workshop: the music, easy movements, and, most importantly, Maria’s quiet, physical manner, and simple ease that made instant understandings for many of our folks.”

After the last workshop, everyone was enthusiastic about how much they had enjoyed it and expressed their eagerness to do more activities like this. “Carla and I had a good time,” said another participant. “Calling it ‘dance’ initially scared us off, but Maria was extremely professional and effective in working with a group of memory-impaired folks. The socialization and laughter were the best part of the event, and a little physical movement was a bonus.” Another participant added, “Larry and I enjoyed the BrainDance workshop and thought it was very worthwhile. I also feel the socialization for everyone involved makes life easier for both the caregiver and the loved one. The Segerstrom Center is greatly appreciated by us.”

At the Center, this was noted during a post-project assessment with AOC, which completed a post-workshop questionnaire to evaluate the quality of the partnership. Both organizations look at whether the collaboration achieved its goal and how we might continue the partnership with new goals. The feedback is important to ensure the mission and goals of the partner organizations are being met. “BrainDance was a huge hit!” says Kim Bailey, program specialist with AOC. “Thank you for bringing such a unique event to our clients. To say we deeply appreciate your partnership is an understatement.”

But the last word comes from Sharon, who brought her Alzheimers-impaired mother to the classes. “I found it inspiring to watch the smiles, the body language and happiness that fi lled that room every time we gathered. We noticed our gatherings became a comfortable atmosphere as our group continued to be aware of one another and friendships formed. Many thanks to Segerstrom Center for their generous giving of personnel, time, materials and consideration. How fortunate we were!”

*Participants’ names have been changed for confidentiality