When Phyllis Dua, 77, walked into the Yoga Center of Columbia, she didn’t remember attending a class there just a week before.
But once she was seated facing her daughter, Pam, practicing yoga arm and leg movements, and listening to her favorite Motown songs, Dua started to smile and talk about her day.
With their legs intertwined, holding hands and stretching their shoulders, Dua reached out to her daughter and touched her cheek saying, “I couldn’t resist.”
Dua has Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that causes memory loss and other cognitive problems. The Yoga Center of Columbia’s chair yoga class caters specifically to people with the disease and those who take care of them.
Instructor Catherine Rees, 56, began offering the class at no charge on Wednesday afternoons in September, inspired by her success with a similar class at Intergrace Copper Ridge, a center for dementia care in Sykesville. There, the class grew from one dementia patient, with a caregiver, to more than 16 people each week.
Rees says she came up with the idea for the class through her experience teaching gentle yoga classes at local senior homes and centers.
“I would see the caregivers, and they looked so tired and felt lost during their visits,” Rees says. “My hope was to give them both something to do so that when the person [with Alzheimer’s or dementia] starts to deteriorate, they are able to connect with those who care for them with touch.”
Rees, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in nursing administration, is part of a research team at George Mason University studying the effect of chair yoga on caregivers and people with Alzheimer’s. The team just completed a pilot program that Rees says shows an increase in relationship quality between the caregiver and the care recipient, along with decreased feelings of stress for the caregiver.
“A lot of times caregivers and those they care for with dementia will come walking behind each other looking stressed, and then while they’re in class they actually reach over and touch each other’s hands and often walk out of the class holding hands,” Rees says.
She says watching the transformations in people like Phyllis Dua is why she keeps the program going.
“She really enjoyed the partner poses, and they were smiling and hugging,” she says. “As the disease progresses it’s wonderful to know that they’ll still have that memory of the touch and the way that they were with each other, and that’s going to take over for the words.”
Dua’s caretaker, Inez Fleming, says that she enjoys the class because it gives her some tools to use on tough days.
“Phyllis had a smile on her face the entire time,” Fleming says. “It’s great to be able to learn some of these exercises and stretches and to bring those with us so that I can help her at home as well.”
Pam Dua, 49, has been equally pleased.
“It’s very heartwarming to see my mother out and about,” the Ellicott City resident says. “I don’t want any of her independence taken away just because she has Alzheimer’s.”