Instead of focusing on what they cannot remember, residents at the Newton and Wellesley Alzheimer Center are learning something new: Yoga.
"Yoga is new to all of them," said instructor Maggie Sky of Roots & Wings Yoga and Healing Arts in Natick, which offers the classes at the center. On a recent afternoon, 15 people chatted, laughed and happily anticipated a yoga class. Sky turned on soft music and encouraged the group to relax and breathe slowly. Everyone began to focus. "Often they don't remember the poses between classes," she said. But there's repetition in the postures and breathing, and the structure of the class repeats itself each time, helping the residents to remember. "We focus on what they can do," added Sky. "Everything is modified, even the deep breathing. The essence of it is the same as any yoga class."
The concentration of the residents in the yoga class defied stereotypes about people with this common form of dementia. "It's good for the memory. It's good for the body," said Sky. "Doing the breathing and the postures, they are connecting with the inner self and each other. "The class members sat in chairs and on couches. Some had walkers; one was in a wheelchair. They listened. They moved their arms and legs with Sky's encouragement. They breathed deeply.
Dr. William Wiener, a neurologist with MetroWest Medical Center, said while Alzheimer's patients can continue with activities they were involved in before their symptoms began, it's unusual for them to learn a new activity because of their memory impairment. "I have Alzheimer's patients who swim every day, but they did that before," he said. He was intrigued to hear that yoga was new for these patients. "This is unique, at the very least. I'm an open-minded doctor. I don't immediately shut out alternative (therapies)." Weiner said it is important to keep Alzheimer's patients active. Patients with the disease often display impaired cognitive function but their bodies are sometimes still healthy and strong, and need exercising. "(They) should be encouraged to do anything that's safe to do within their capacity," he said.
The idea to offer yoga classes at the Newton and Wellesley Alzheimer Center was spearheaded by activities director Louise Arreano. "Corporate (Kindred Healthcare) wanted more exercise" for the residents, Arreano said. Some exercise programs in the past have been successful, others have not. "With this, they really participate," she said. Arreano called Roots & Wings director Karen Kuhl to ask if there was a teacher who could provide classes at the center. Kuhl and Sky wanted to give it a try and decided, with Arreano, to offer a bimonthly class through the summer. There are already plans to continue the classes in the fall. "We've been developing classes for underserved populations," said Kuhl, explaining that Roots & Wings offers varied programs, such as chair yoga for multiple sclerosis patients and therapeutic yoga for youngsters with special needs. "This was such a good match."
At the class, the residents listened intently to Sky. "Notice how the music feels in your body," she said. Encouraging them to breathe slowly and deeply "from your belly," she said, "(notice) the belly expands when you breathe in and falls when you breathe out." As the participants stretched their arms over their heads, Sky told them to "reach for the stars....This keeps your back flexible." Sky said sometimes the participants are engaged and active, other times they sleep or doze through the class, depending on medication they might be taking or other activities or treatments they had that day. Wiener said some patients with Alzheimer's may remember the poses or the breathing exercises better than others. And some may not remember them at all. "If the patients don't carry over the skill, it's not so bad because they have the benefit of the experience," he said.
Back in the class, Sky encouraged the participants to give lots of love to themselves and to "give yourself a hug, give yourself a kiss." Perhaps not moves found in a conventional yoga class but ones that suited these patients and their needs. "A lot of this is touch with them," said Arreano, the center's activities director. "That's the most important thing with them is the touch."
Sky has received positive feedback from caregivers, too. Some participate in the class with their elders. "It gives them a connection," Sky said. "That's my observation. Several of them are expressing interest" in yoga for themselves. But the widest smiles belong to the residents. "It's like yoga was made for them," Arreano said. "They know, they know, they really do, that it is good for their bodies and minds. And they love, love Maggie."
Newton and Wellesley Alzheimer Center is at 694 Worcester Road (Rte. 9), Wellesley. For more information, visit www.nw-alzheimer.com.
Roots & Wings Yoga and Healing Arts is at 317 North Main St., Natick. For more information, visit www.rootsandwingshealingarts.com or call 508-315-8088.Framingham, MA - The MetroWest Daily News