‘This really gets me going’: Growing Utah program offers the gift of motion to seniors with Parkinson’s and other mobility challenges

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Juan Carlos Claudio brings his Minding Motion dance workshop to residents at Cottonwood Place Senior Living in Holladay in December.

Mike Berry walks with measured steps into the Tenth East Senior Center in Salt Lake City every Thursday for his Grey Matters dance class. He helps arrange chairs into a semicircle and greets his classmates and instructor Juan Carlos Claudio. Then Berry, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease four years ago, starts moving.

Claudio puts on the music and tells group members to start rubbing their arms and legs because “motion is lotion.” The positive energy kicks up a notch when Claudio welcomes each of the 17 participants by name and they begin to rediscover twisting muscles. There are seated tango moves and jazzy kick-ball changes that restore the sensation of balance. After class, there are big smiles and as one woman exclaims: “This really gets me going.”

“As Parkinson’s patients, we are being attacked by this thing that is limiting our movement, and Juan is all about movement,” Berry said. “I imagine he sees [Parkinson’s] as this challenge and Juan is a dragon-slayer whose quest is ridding the world of movement disruptions and limitations.”

The class is part of an expanding organization rooted in Claudio’s research as a former assistant professor of dance at the University of Utah. Originally focused on movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, last year Grey Matters expanded to address dementia and Alzheimer’s under the umbrella organization Minding Motion for Graceful Aging.

According to research cited on Minding Motion’s website, long-term cognitive acuity studies from Stanford and PET imaging studies from Harvard confirm that adults who participate in dance and the arts show exciting health benefits and perform much better on wellness metrics than their peers.

And the research is expanding. Next weekend, for example, Minding Motion is presenting at Utah’s 2018 Generations Conference on addiction and substance abuse in aging populations.

“The number of classes [we offer] per week has grown by more than 200 percent since the first of the year in Utah, and we are in the process of expanding to the Pacific Northwest and West Coast,” said Damon Georgelas, a Salt Lake City attorney and chief operating officer of Minding Motion.

The program also recently began offering classes online at mindingmotion.com. John Allen, Minding Motion’s chief development officer, said the goal of the online courses is to refine the at-home experience so that “even if you can’t get out to a class, it’s still about lifting mood, building confidence, and social interaction all wrapped up in this wonderful energetic practice.”

Cottonwood Place Senior Living in Holladay is one of about 20 private and Salt Lake County-owned locations offering classes. Most classes are free or $5; monthly plans for the online video library are $13-$15.

In December before the holidays, Claudio gathered a circle of assisted-living participants at Cottonwood to begin stretching and exercising. He instructed them to send the energy out into the room as if they were flicking paint with their fingertips and then to imagine suction cups on their palms to pull it back.

“I want the class to have purpose,” Claudio said. “Since many people have challenges with shoulders and finger articulation due to arthritis, for example, we strengthen the muscles around the rotator cuff and lubricate the joints by pretending to throw paint onto the wall, and pulling it back. This works on articulating the fingers and hands, helping them further with activities of daily living.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Juan Carlos Claudio brings his Minding Motion dance workshop to residents at Cottonwood Place Senior Living in Holladay in December.

As participants warmed up, Claudio directed them to place their hands on their chests to feel the beat of their hearts. One woman turned serious, saying she couldn’t feel her heart at all, until someone else in the circle pointed out that her hand was on the wrong side of her body — and everyone burst into laughter.

Claudio has expanded his assisted-living program at Cottonwood to the memory-care unit twice a week, a challenging endeavor. But he is helping to rethink the conventional wisdom about memory.

“It’s almost like there’s a reservoir of untapped memory that movement and music brings out in people,” he said.

For Berry, his Parkinson’s diagnosis four years ago changed his life in ways he says he can’t explain. He recalls telling his doctor upon his diagnosis, “I feel like I am walking in someone else’s legs.”

Since the diagnosis, the 68-year-old started writing poetry, has a full exercise regimen and was married for the first time a little over a year ago. He still runs his longtime downtown Salt Lake City business, Michael Berry Gallery & Custom Framing shop.

Berry’s wife, Karen, suggested they take tango lessons. Berry said he’s happy he overcame his childhood fear of dancing and took his wife’s advice. He credits Claudio and the Grey Matters class with providing a valuable tool to counteract the effects of Parkinson’s.

“Juan presents a lot of material and asks you to go places I would not have allowed myself to go,” Berry said. “I resisted at first but now I do it, because who wants to walk in someone else’s legs?”