Music appears to pierce the fog of forgetfulness that envelops people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When patients hear popular old songs, they suddenly start to sing along or dance.
Having recognised that music reawakens memories thought to be lost, an increasing number of organisations in Germany are holding afternoon dances for Alzheimer's sufferers.
"A man comes to us who's often apathetic. But when he hears the song that he and his wife always danced to, he gets up and begins to dance with her," related Christine Zarzitzky of the Munich Alzheimer's Society, which holds a dance once a month.
Marianne Moeller, from the Alfeld Seniors Academy in the German state of Lower Saxony, has had a similar experience. "All of the guests sing along when we play 'Lili Marleen'," she said. Though most of the guests at the Cafe Alz have dementia, they dance and sing during their dance get-together.
Many German cities now offer dancing for dementia patients. The Alzheimer's Kin Initiative in Berlin has been holding a dance once a month for the past six years. Dementia patients in the North Rhine-Westphalian municipality of Windeck can dance in Castle Merten's hall of mirrors, while those in Hamburg have the Chat Cafe, located in a community centre.
In Cologne, the regional Dementia Service Centre, in conjunction with the German Foundation for the Care of Elderly People (KDA), plans to organise a tea dance - including dancing instructors - in a dancing school.
"We want to give people a bit of normalcy again," remarked the centre's Stefan Kleinstueck.
Suffering from dementia or having a partner who does often results in isolation. "Many family members are hesitant to appear in public with the affected person," Moeller said. The afternoon dances are aimed at breaking the isolation.
"We want to give people the chance to experience their partner in a different way again," Kleinstueck said. Music and dancing are ideal for this, according to experts. "In the case of Alzheimer's dementia, verbal memory typically declines first," explained Professor Hans Foerstl of the Munich Technical University Hospital. A large part of memory - implicit memory - remains intact, however. And here is where music comes in, he said.
Prompted by key stimuli, old memories suddenly return, noted Foerstl, an Alzheimer's expert and member of the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Neurology (DGPPN).
Hans-Juergen Freter, a spokesman for the German Alzheimer's Society in Berlin, said that dancing counteracted the lethargy and melancholy felt by many patients. But he advises family members not to get their hopes up: Just because an Alzheimer's sufferer was able to remember song lyrics and dance steps does not mean that he or she will continue to do so.
"The moment is what counts first," Foerstl said. "When the patient goes home in a cheery mood, that's also worth something."