Creative movement exercise a hit with seniors

Ms Mary Tan, 82, joins other residents in a creative movement module led by healthcare staff at Villa Francis Home for the Aged. Ms Tan says she enjoys the exercise even though she does not like dancing.
Ms Mary Tan, 82, joins other residents in a creative movement module led by healthcare staff at Villa Francis Home for the Aged. Ms Tan says she enjoys the exercise even though she does not like dancing.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Curriculum developed by dance company now a regular fixture at nursing home

It is 2pm and a group of 15 elderly people are lined up in a circle in a spacious room. Most of them are in wheelchairs. They do not talk much. Four facilitators enter the ring with an energetic greeting. Smiles break out on some of the senior citizens' faces.

Let's play a game, the facilitators say, and ask those taking part to pass a small ball to the person next to them, until the music stops.

The task sounds easy enough, but for the folk at Villa Francis Home for the Aged, some of whom have had strokes and have musculoskeletal problems, it takes effort.

The passing game is followed by a series of arm movements based on familiar daily routines.

The seniors are asked, for instance, to use their arms to show the time they had their meals - both arms straight up for noon, or at a 90-degree angle for 3pm.

Then, they are asked to draw circles in the air to mimic the rotating blades of an electric fan; big circles for ceiling fans, small circles for tabletop ones. Again, some find it hard to raise their arms, especially straight up. Still, they try, encouraged by the facilitators.

The various arm movements are then performed to upbeat music, creating a dance routine of sorts.

This activity was not improvised on the fly by the facilitators, who are healthcare professionals. It was based on a recently devised curriculum designed to help elderly people transform everyday actions into movements that improve their mobility and, at the same time, spark their imagination.

This "creative movement" activity was first held at Villa Francis in Februarylast year as a pilot programme. Today, it is a regular fixture at the home, with sessions every two weeks. It is part of the Wellness Programme started last year by the Agency for Integrated Care.

Four healthcare staff from Villa Francis have been trained to facilitate the activity. This involves attending four workshops lasting two hours each, and two coaching sessions lasting three hours each.

They are also given an instruction manual, a DVD and music to help them run the sessions.

The curriculum was developed by a team helmed by Cultural Medallion recipient Angela Liong, the artistic director of a professional dance company, after a 12-week research pilot to assess its suitability for the community care sector.

Integrating familiar movements helps the elderly form clear mental images during the activity, said Ms Liong. "At the end of the day, it makes more sense to the elderly than 'I am just lifting my arm'."

This helps to keep their minds engaged too, she added.

Given that the activity is, in essence, a form of exercise, the theme of everyday movements helps to pique the elderly folk's interest more, said Ms Susan Gui, director of nursing at Villa Francis.

"If you tell them it's just exercise, they will think it's boring and refuse to take part," she explained.

The fresh concept makes it easier for staff to "sell" the activity to the elderly, she said.

Another key point to get across is that it is all right even if you cannot perform every action to a T.

"We do not expect them to follow the movements 100 per cent," said Ms Gui.

"What's important is that they are willing to participate, rather than keep to themselves."

Ms Mary Tan, 82, is a fan. When Mind & Body visited Villa Francis recently, she was seen performing the moves enthusiastically and with a grin while seated in her wheelchair.

"I enjoyed it very much, even though I don't like dancing," she said after the hour-long session.

Ms Tan has cervical problems that cause numbness in her hands. "I cannot reach up easily, so I do the smaller movements," she said. "It helps to improve my strength."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Creative movement exercise a hit with seniors'. Print Edition | Subscribe