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Healing Journeys: A helping hand with Alzheimer’s

Do you have a family member or a friend with Alzheimer’s? If so, you know it is a baffling disease, one to test your patience and understanding. As I watch my mom help my dad (who has Alzheimer’s) negotiate the rigors of daily life, I find it remarkable how the mind and body start to separate.

Barbara Larsen, M.A.Ed., has been working in the field of dementia care for 20 years. She has a new book, “Movement with Meaning,” which is the culmination of her practical, hands-on approach in providing a multi-sensory program for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Barbara has been an education and family consultant for Del Oro Caregiver Resource Center since 1988, a statewide nonprofit serving the needs of family caregivers. Her work and book may just be the right help for many people and their families who are struggling with this debilitating disease.



What was the impetus for you to study and write about Alzheimer’s care?

In the mid-1980s after an extended maternity leave for three years, I was ready to go back to work in the field of my expertise: special education. Unfortunately, the heyday for many innovative programs was over, due to the continued ramifications of Prop. 13.




One day, as I was reading the want ads in The Union, I came across a job description for a communication and language specialist to work two days a week with “hard to reach patients.” This sparked my interest.

During the interview, I was asked about my experience as a special education teacher. I explained how in the multisensory approach I had been using, all the senses and modalities were used as avenues for learning. In my new position as communication and language specialist, I was given 18 residents to visit on a one-to-one basis twice a week.

As it turned out, many of these elders had Alzheimer’s disease. It was the elders who taught me about what it feels like to live with Alzheimer’s disease. I began to use the multisensory techniques I was accustomed to, and before long personal life stories came pouring out of these incredible individuals. I thus began a spiritual sojourn in witnessing the Alzheimer’s journey.

Your new book, “Movement with Meaning,” is for individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. What do we know about the early stage of the disease?

Until recently there were many misconceptions about the abilities of individuals with Alzheimer’s.

One misconception was that once an individual was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease it was thought that no new learning was possible. Many of us in the field of Alzheimer’s care knew that this was not true, but now there is research documentation that verifies new learning can and does happen.

Early in the disease process, verbal communication skills may become impaired. This results in having difficulty finding the right word or naming objects. The ability to attend and concentrate also becomes diminished. However, one of the first subtle effects of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease is disorientation. This I found fascinating for many students I had worked with in the field of special education also had problems with orientation. The underlying question regarding students with an orientation-related disability or individuals with Alzheimer’s disease is, “Where is my body in time and space?” It was here where I focused my attention in developing the medley of activities and exercises that eventually became “Movement with Meaning.”

How does “Movement with Meaning” assist individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s in maintaining their highest functional level and live a full life with integrity and dignity?

In a Movement with Meaning class, the multisensory activities are divided into five segments that create a choreography of movements in which short, repetitive exercises increase a sense of well-being. The program introduces simple breathing techniques, poetry, music, movement exercises (yoga postures and bilateral exercises), and sensory activities. When the elements of Movement with Meaning are put together, the result is a refocusing of attention back into the body of the person with Alzheimer’s disease. The body becomes the container from which the person with Alzheimer’s can feel empowered. Once the person with Alzheimer’s experiences a sense of his or her inner landscape, anxiety and confusion begin to subside. Movement with Meaning provides an opportunity for the participants to recognize the abilities and talents lying dormant behind the disease and find a new path to connect and communicate with each other and their families.

Is there a local facility that is using these techniques?

I have been leading an ongoing Movement with Meaning class for the past year at Highgate Senior Living. We meet three days a week for 30 minute classes. The participants are very open and honest about their experiences and share many stories from their childhood and early adult life. In the future, we are hoping that many facilities will be offering this helpful program.

Barbara Larsen will be presenting her new book, “Movement with Meaning,” Saturday, Feb. 4 at 3 p.m., at The Book Seller, in Grass Valley. A demonstration of a Movement with Meaning class will be presented. She can be reached at 274-1005.

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Suzie Daggett is the publisher of the INSIGHT Directory of Healing Arts Practitioners; 530-265-9255, http://www.insightdirectory.com Look for the Seventh Edition of INSIGHT, now available at many local outlets.


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