4 Ways Yoga Helps Alzheimer's Patients

By: 
Kathryn Boland, RCYT

Yoga offers a personal journey of growth and self-discovery for each practitioner. It also offers ways to join in community with others, all together as part of the universe’s prana (life-force). Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia significantly challenge both self-awareness and the ability of individuals in community to connect. Moreover, it’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Unlike the other top ten leading causes of death, however, there is no cure, or even method for slowing or tempering it.

In the face of lacking medical approaches, caregivers do their best—day in and day out—to ensure the highest possible quality of life until the disease inevitably claims patients’ lives. Through the disease’s stages of varying severity, patients slowly lose their abilities for complex thought, executing common favorite activities, and even basic activities such as feeding oneself. Patients have varying levels of awareness of what is happening to them as the disease progresses, but emotions including fear, anger and depression often arise.

Meanwhile, caregivers attempt to keep patients as safe and content as possible. Especially in cases of caring for memory-disordered loved ones, they grapple with their own grief processes while watching them slowly fade away. As patients’ basic communication skills go, those caregivers can no longer connect with them on how both parties are feeling. Amidst these immense challenges for both caregivers and patients, yoga can offer many tools for making those last years easier and more enjoyable for all involved. Those include relaxation methods, retraining and practice in basic motor skills, catharsis through joyful movement and images, and powerful non-verbal means of connection and communication.

Yoga for Alzheimer's Disease: Laughter Yoga

One of the surest ways to reach catharsis, relaxation, and communal connection is laughter, the focus of Laughter Yoga. The idea of this yoga form is that even pretending to laugh brings many of the same psychological and physiological benefits of laughing for real, and participants might even find themselves actually laughing! Jody Ross describes her Laughter Yoga classes for patients with memory disorders at Lakeview Ranch in Darwin, Minnesota. She describes how all 15 of the residents in the group joined in the laughter before long.

The classes confer other benefits too. For example, a few laughing residents who seemed to have lost the ability to clap were clapping strongly by the end. Perhaps re-connecting with the neural pathways connected to laughing managed to also reignite those involved with clapping. 

The science is still not fully clear on how such reconnections might occur. Ross describes how patients’ family members also often come to feel disconnected from their Alzheimer’s-afflicted loved ones, no longer able to communicate with them or even receive basic facial expressions from them. “With the help of the Laughter Yoga classes, however, the daughter of a resident, who was unable to speak—with an expression seemingly frozen in a scowl, connected with her father, and they shared something positive for the first time in a long time,” Ross relates.

Yoga for Alzheimer's Patients and Caretakers: Yoga Asana

Yoga asana can also be helpful. Everyone needs to move their bodies, including Alzheimer’s/dementia patients and their caregivers. Research in medical and psychological science resoundingly attests to exercise’s body-mind benefits. While just trying to get through each day’s challenges, however, those living in the grips of memory disorders often do not get the opportunities to experience those benefits. For patients, losing motor skills and previously held athletic abilities can make exercising feel strange and awkward. Even if caregivers can carve out time for exercise they sometimes feel guilty taking that time for themselves rather than for caring for their loved one.

Yoga for Alzheimer's Patients and Caretakers: Breath Awareness

Yoga can offer simple movements and much-needed periods of rest. Breath awareness helps keep patients and caregivers connected with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions. Both caregivers and patients can participate in gentle yoga practice, a study from Teesside University in Middlesbrough, U.K. found. Lead researcher Yvonne J-Lyn Khoo describes how caretakers therefore don’t feel guilty about taking time to exercise, because it’s also benefitting their memory-disordered loved one. Patients and caretakers in these medical cases—those who are in a situation to truly benefit from it—can enjoy yoga’s adjustable and whole-body, whole-person fitness benefits.

Alan Mozes’s article on the also cites Catherine Roe, an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She describes how “caregivers for people with dementia are under so much stress … They often neglect themselves and have no time do things like exercise or meditate. So this is one way that might be possible,” she said.

Yoga Poses for Alzheimer's Disease: Chair Yoga

What does yoga for dementia patients and their caregivers look like? I personally have taught Chair Yoga in a locked memory care unit, over the course of 10 months. I found that keeping it simple, slow (yet fluid), and fun most successfully engaged the residents who attended my classes. They loved verbal imagery. For example, I would encourage them to “reach and pick an apple!” in a side bend.

The residents also seemed to particularly enjoy flowing Sun Salutations (adapted for a chair, with just the first Swan Dive and Half-Way Lift sections). They also relished in opportunities to reach and extend (such as a modified Downward Dog and a Tree Pose with just the arms). Throughout, I emphasized keeping full, deep breaths and taking rests when necessary. I would often end classes by continuing with imagery work. Guided meditations I offered at that point included imagining walking through a favorite place (and bringing to mind associated smells, sounds, sights, et cetera) as well as body scans. The latter could also contribute to maintaining body awareness.

On the other hand, Alzheimer’s/dementia patients sometimes have little trouble remembering longer-term memories, but remembering five minutes ago is more difficult. All in all, I did hear the residents discuss memories, further connect with each other and caregivers (including participating paid care assistants), and have a sense of calm and peace that wasn’t present right before the groups.

For all of these benefits, I hope to see yoga available to more and more of those whose lives are touched by memory disorders. With the baby boomers entering the age bracket that these diseases primarily target, there will be more and more individuals along with their caregivers, who could truly benefit from it. We yoga instructors, practitioners, and enthusiasts can do our part through public and political advocacy as well as creating and offering our professional service packages. Let’s do what we can to ensure that those who face the various challenges of memory disorders can enjoy what yoga can offer them.

Study with YogaUOnline and Dr. Baxter Bell - Yoga for Healthy Aging:Your Brain on Yoga Part 1.

More from writer Kathryn Boland - Twisted Postures For Grounded Flexibility.
 

Kathryn Boland is a RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!