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Dancing for Dementia

Dancing for Dementia


Like any recital, the Celtic Academy’s year-end Irish dance showcase in Walkerton, Ont., will attract an audience of proud parents and supportive siblings.

But don’t be surprised to find performers’ sons and daughters—even grandchildren—filling the rows, too. That’s because, alongside students as young as 3, the recital will feature a slew of senior dancers as old as 89, many of whom live with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

The dancing-for-dementia recital is one of thousands of events taking place worldwide on The Longest Day, a U.S. Alzheimer’s Association fundraising and awareness project that takes place on June 21. Participating groups register, raise $1,600 ($100 for every hour of sunlight) and spend the day doing an activity they love: hiking, bowling, and playing music, to name a few.

Dance was a natural choice for 50-year-old Mary Foley—owner and director of the Celtic Academy, a dance school with nine locations littered across Southern Ontario—who planned the recital for the summer solstice and themed it “Forget Me Not.”

The event isn’t Foley’s first experience working with dancers facing dementia; after a conversation with a student’s parent, she began teaching courses for elderly dancers. That group eventually performed during a Culture Days weekend and staged the first-ever Irish dance “flash mob,” at a Canadian Tire.

“The audience is just enthralled because they can’t believe seniors with Alzheimer’s and borderline dementia can do this,” says Foley.

Foley’s reason for instructing people with Alzheimer’s is twofold: In addition to the joy she sees in dancers engaging with their community (sometimes she’ll even bring her younger students to dance with the seniors), she also has a personal connection.

“My own grandmother would have been 100 if she lived to this year,” she says. “When she was about 86, I remember knocking on her door, and she looked at me like she didn’t remember me.”

Nowadays, Foley finds herself visiting retirement homes to dance with seniors like her grandmother. For those who can really “get up and dance” in the group, she offers free classes (“They may leave a toonie to cover their portion of the rent of the hall,” she says) and coordinates performances, like January’s Walk for Memories—a Canadian Alzheimer’s Society fundraising event—or the Longest Day recital.

Instead of collecting pledges beforehand and doing 16 straight hours of activity on June 21 (as most other teams are doing), Foley and her group at the Celtic Academy will donate all proceeds from the three-hour recital’s ticket sales to the Alzheimer Society of Dufferin County. And Foley maintains that, “even if [the dancers] are only on that stage for five minutes, it’s well over 16 hours of preparation.”

Apart from the Celtic Academy, a handful of other Canadian teams are participating in The Longest Day. One group plans to cycle from dawn to dusk; a man in Toronto is aiming to walk 75 kilometres in support of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s; and another team hopes to recruit 16 members, regardless of location, to commit to doing one hour of their favorite activity each. A group in Orillia, meanwhile, will host a 16-hour bridge-playing marathon to mark the day.

While The Longest Day’s ultimate goal mimics the Alzheimer’s Association’s mission—to provide and enhance care and eliminate the disease altogether—Foley says the event has another benefit for people like the elderly dancers she works with.

“They just want it recognized that they’re not all bedridden, in wheelchairs, behind closed doors, or dependent on society,” she says. “They want to be heard, they want to be active members in their communities, and they want to be voice for keeping seniors engaged.”

For more on The Longest Day, click here.

Luc Rinaldi is a Toronto-based freelancer.

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