When they were freshmen, Kaitlin Churchill and Sienna Diemand proposed the idea of developing a chair yoga program to help senior citizens and Alzheimer’s patients stay physically fit and improve socialization.
Since then, they have been working with patients at The Arbors and attendees of the Gardner Visiting Nurses Association Adult Day Program, both located in Greenfield. On May 20, the two juniors, along with their Health Technology instructor Gretchen Werle will present the chair yoga program to a group of health care professionals at the annual A Map Through The Maze conference presented by the Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to be held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Marlborough.
A Map Through The Maze is New England’s largest conference on Alzheimer’s disease and is attended by hundreds of medical professionals and other interested parties. During a breakout session at the conference, Gretchen will make an introduction and present the theoretical foundations of the program, while Kaitlin and Sienna will give hands-on demonstrations of the exercises they use with their clients.
Chair yoga modifies movements used in traditional yoga to make the practice accessible to anyone. It does not involve using a mat or standing and therefore can be done by people in wheelchairs or those who for other reasons have limited mobility.
In preparation for the conference, Kaitlin recently practiced the presentation to a group of her fellow Health Tech students. Sienna was dismissed early on the day of the practice session, but she and Kaitlin will alternate explaining various aspects of the program during the conference.
“Its nerve wracking, but I’m excited,” Kaitlin said of the prospect of presenting the program at A Map Through The Maze. “To be able to provide the program to other facilities is a good feeling. More people will benefit, not just the groups we work with at the Arbors and GVNA.”
The process to be chosen to present at A Map Through The Maze was highly competitive. Gretchen submitted a proposal and application late last year, and she found out in January that they had been selected to participate.
“I’m honored that we were chosen,” she said. “It’s very exciting to participate, especially with the students.”
Last summer Gretchen took a five day Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge. She took what she learned at the training and along with Kaitlin, Sienna and other Health Technology students chose yoga routines that fit with their program.
“I came back with a training manual that had several yoga sequences and many other resources,” Gretchen said. “We picked out the ones that would work for our population. We can pass this onto other people at the conference so they can start their own programs. It’s excellent that the school administration can allow us to be innovative by supporting me in taking the course at the Kripalu Center so I could come back with what I learned and teach the students.”
The program to be presented at the conference will start with Gretchen’s introduction, followed by a presentation of the current research on the benefits of chair yoga and social connection, interspersed with Kaitlin and Sienna leading session attendees through the series of exercises that their clients experience.
The chair yoga routine involves acupressure hand movements, knee strengthening exercises, stretching, and range of motion exercises. There is also an important social aspect that begins the program. Student leaders begin by asking a question from a “Treasure Chest of Memories,” a collection of question cards that are designed to access long term memory, which tends to stay intact longer in people with dementia. Participants go around the circle and answer the question presented.
“We realized that exercise time is a good opportunity for social engagement for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Gretchen said. “We’re promoting a social connection.”
In her presentation, Gretchen cites studies describing the benefits of chair yoga and social connection to an elderly population. A 2006 study of healthy senior citizens found that those participating in yoga classes showed significant improvement in quality of life measurements, as well as in balance and forward bending ability.
Another study from 2012 stated that chair yoga is a feasible and safe intervention for seniors in their nineties and over 100 years old who may be at risk for falls. A 2011 literature review of non-pharmaceutical interventions found that there was a significant decrease in pain in elderly individuals that participated in a chair yoga group as opposed to other groups.
Kaitlin has seen small but significant improvements in the range of motion and social interactions of the people she works with at The Arbors and GVNA.
“We have people who have a harder time communicating, but they can do the movements,” she said. “When you bring out the opening questions, it sparks communication.”