The Magic of Movies

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With a few welcome exceptions, TV shows and films about aging most often feature dire and dour stereotypes of the later years of life. It can be downright depressing.

But challenge yourself to keep a straight face while watching the iconic scene from the 1952 I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy and Ethel have first delicious, then disastrous results while trying to wrap up chocolates traveling down an ever-speeding conveyor belt. The giggles it likely provokes are therapeutic on their own. And for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, watching familiar filmed pieces does more than just turn over their tickleboxes; it can actually be a form of treatment for many of the nettlesome symptoms they experience, such as aggression, anxiety, agitation, and apathy.

Now Playing: ‘Movie Moments’

“Creative arts have the power to connect with deep-rooted emotional memories that never leave. And films, especially films with music, help transcend age, culture, and language,” according to Rachel Main, a family support coordinator with the Alzheimer’s Association and co-founder of Creative Aging San Francisco, a group focused on using the creative arts to foster healthy aging.

Main is also the moving force behind “Movie Moments at the Vogue,” an interactive event at which people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, along with their caregivers, are invited to enjoy brief clips from a number of well-known movies and discuss them. Held at one of San Francisco’s few remaining single-screen theatres, the third and most recent showing attracted a sold-out crowd of 200 movie buffs, along with a couple dozen volunteers.

Main describes Movie Magic as “a dementia-inclusive initiative bridging film and community” — and the event delivers on that promise. Despite some concerns that people in the early stages of dementia would be put off mixing with those in later stages, all were invited to attend. “The early stagers said afterward they were relieved not to be warehoused — that they could look forward to a once-familiar form of socializing in the future,” Main says. “One participant said: ‘It’s just so amazing to be welcomed.’”

Details, Details

That alone helps make the painstaking planning and somewhat wonky logistics worthwhile. Because watching a long movie can be frustrating for someone with dementia, curated films are shown in 8 to 10-minute clips, obviating the need to piece together complicated plots. Each is followed by audience discussion led by a moderator urging them to discuss the universal issues the films brought to mind, often embedded in their long-term memories — including romance, friendship, family, and careers. To garner the attention of the diverse audience members, Main and other event organizers found it best to mix up film topics rather than focus on a theme. Initial Movie Magic offerings were confined to older films. But that stricture has been relaxed. As one example, a clip from Little Miss Sunshine, a touching and hilarious 2006 film featuring an intergenerational cross-country road trip in a VW bus, was recently added to great applause from the viewing audience.

Those who intend to attend Movie Magic are required to reserve a seat in advance — and asked to indicate if they need wheelchair space or have mobility or transferring issues that require assistance; if so, a couple dozen volunteers are available to lend helping hands. In addition to the costumed volunteers who welcome attendees and show them to their sets, there is plenty more room for the promised community involvement. Along with the Alzheimer’s Association and Creative Aging San Francisco, additional program partners have been the Elder Care Alliance and Medical Clown Project. In addition, more than a dozen senior living communities and organizations participated by publicizing the event and transporting seniors and their caregivers to it.

More Than Good Popcorn

Thanks to the easy availability of streaming services, it’s easy to pull up and watch part of a poignant film with a loved one who has dementia. But Main also lauds the positive effects of watching en masse. “There’s something magical about being at a theatre, being back in society, taking in the familiar smell of popcorn,” she says. She also notes that the time of the day the event is held — 10 a.m. to noon — is good for many who may suffer from early morning agitation or late afternoon Sundowner’s syndrome. And the darkened theatre is also calming for most attending.

In addition to providing therapeutic entertainment for them, event organizers say additional goals are to increase positive attitudes and awareness of dementia while at the same time reducing stigmas often associated with it.

While Main helped spearhead the specialized filmfest in San Francisco, she freely admits she didn’t originate the concept. “I think one thing I’m really good at is copying other people’s ideas,” she says. One of the pioneers is a program titled “Meet Me at the Movies & Make Memories,” based in Brookline, Massachusetts.

That program is worthy of imitation, according to a recent comprehensive study funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It answered “yes” to the question it posed: “Does Meet Me at the Movies programming elicit increased levels of positive engagement/affect and reduced levels of negative engagement/affect in persons with dementia, as compared to standard activities?”

That’s researcher speak for “It really works.”

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