The program’s aim is to tap into people’s continuing abilities — to have relationships, to care about each other — and help them grow through creative expression.
Music class is in full swing at the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy. Nat King Cole croons Mona Lisa, and four seniors, all with dementia, dance. Arnold Wellman, 74, twirls in his wheelchair.
“So much is left, and so much is gone. He’s a very smart man,” says Wellman’s wife, Mary Walsh, 69, watching him dance. “This was a godsend finding this program.”
If he weren’t here, Wellman, a former clinical psychologist, says he’d be home in bed watching television, probably unable to remember how to change the channel.
“I have a doctorate. I must have a brain,” he says. “Maybe there’s enough left that if it gets worked, I’ll get some things back. I don’t count on that, but I hope for it.”
The Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, which opened last summer, wants to explore what’s possible: can an engaging arts-based day program slow cognitive decline? And how can it improve quality of life?
The academy, located in the CNIB building on Bayview Ave., was created by the University Health Network and York University with a donation from the Bitove family. Its target clients are, primarily, people with mild and moderate forms of dementia.
Rather than focus on dementia as a tragic disease, the academy’s aim is to tap into people’s continuing abilities – to have relationships, to care about each other – and help them grow through creative expression. Professional artists teach the classes. Participants decide what they want to do.
We believe that discovery and expression can happen in the right environment that far exceeds anyone’s imagination.
“We believe that discovery and expression can happen in the right environment that far exceeds anyone’s imagination,” says Gail Mitchell, chair of the York-UHN Nursing Academy, and academic lead for the wellness academy.
While day programs have long existed, the good ones have evolved, offering not just respite and support for the caregiver, but social engagement and stimulation for the client.
“The focus in day programs has changed from custodial care to the person’s growth and development,” says David Harvey, chief public policy and programs initiatives, Alzheimer Society Ontario.
While cognition is diminished, a person’s emotional life continues to be rich, he says. “We need to develop other ways they can express themselves.”
But how can a day program — even a top-notch one — affect the course of the disease?
One way is to make use of the brain’s plasticity. “You’re not necessarily creating new neural connections but activating neural circuitry that’s wasting away,” explains neuroscientist Barry Greenberg, strategy director of the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance.
If I or a loved one were in this situation, I’d be running to these sorts of programs.
“What’s happening in the brain is very speculative and anecdotal,” says Greenberg.
“On the other hand, if I or a loved one were in this situation, I’d be running to these sorts of programs. I think the evidence is that good.”