Trays of half-eaten mashed potatoes and boxed beverages are illuminated by the fluorescent light that fills the hallways and activity rooms. Medication carts move slowly along the shiny tile. The residents of these long-term care settings, often medically complex and cognitively impaired, wander about the unit aimlessly or struggle to get out. Individuals who are more alert and independent convene at retirement communities, adult day and senior centers, with hotel-like entrances and a plethora of silk flowers.

© rackermann
© rackermann

The common thread among these older adults is that fear, frustration and loneliness pervade. Physical and cognitive abilities decline, friends and loved ones are lost to illness or tragedy, and professions and societal roles have disappeared. Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is an effective modality for this population, as individuals are encouraged to express their feeling states in a supportive setting, regardless of functional levels.

As I arrive to facilitate my DMT sessions, I am viscerally aware of my clients’ emotional needs. Prior to the start of each group, I situate participants in a circle formation, play popular music selections from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and incorporate aromatherapy. The combination of this structure and various stimuli yields spontaneous, rhythmic movement, primitive vocalizations, reminiscence, and increased socialization. Below is a vignette illustrating the therapeutic value of DMT at an adult day center. Members were 62 to 99 years of age, cognitively impaired and either were wheelchair bound or used an assistive device.

As Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” played, members began to tap their feet and shake their shoulders rhythmically. The group engaged in a discussion about American Bandstand, “The Good Old Days” and being an integral part of their family structures.

“So it sounds like spending time with family, listening to good music and taking care of what we needed felt good.”

Members’ arms and fingers began to shake.

“What are we shaking out?”

Members exclaimed, “The cobwebs! …Memories! … Good times!”

Some members seated on the outskirts of the room even smiled and clapped their hands. One member became agitated and distracted the group. At these times, it becomes necessary for the facilitator to reassure and refocus the group using various techniques (counting, for example) and sensory materials (props such as scarves, musical instruments, etc).

Glenn Miller’s tune, “In the Mood” played and members began to squeeze their hands together.

Photo by JSmith
Photo by JSmith

I asked, “What are we holding in our hands?”

Members exclaimed, “Chocolate cake! … Fried chicken! …Pictures!”

“What pictures do we like the best?” I asked.

“Children… The family.”

“Where can we hold onto our memories?”

 “In our minds… pictures… love.”

Members, using symbolic movements and their imaginations, metaphorically “placed these memories into a box.”

I shared cinnamon-spiced hand sanitizer, encouraging members to rub their hands together and to take notice of what the fragrance evoked.

Members responded, “Cake… Christmastime… Oranges.”

I sprayed some lavender, guided members through deep breathing and stated, “We found a safe place for our memories today. It was a pleasure being here with all of you.”

DMT with older adults can successfully promote reminiscence and sense of self, as members express themselves in a supportive and stimulating setting. Individuals are given the opportunity to revisit the “good old days,” feel what they feel and connect with today.

​If you are interested in learning more about dance/movement therapy with older adults, here are some references:


Berrol, C. F., Katz, S. S. & Ooi, W. L. (1997). Dance/movement therapy with older adults who have sustained neurological insult: A demonstration project. American Journal of Dance Therapy19(2), 135-160.

Bräuninger, I. (2014). Dance movement therapy with the elderly: An international internet-based survey undertaken with practitioners. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy9(3), 138-153.

Jackson, K. (2014). Expressive therapies for people with alzheimer’s and related dementias. Social Work Today, Jan/Feb, 14(1), 1-10.

Sandel, S. L. (1978). Reminiscence in movement therapy with the aged. Art Psychotherapy5(4), 217-21.



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