Tai chi is an ancient way of moving, enriched by energy exercise designed to increase your body’s vital energy, strength, flexibility and relaxation. With focused breathing and a balanced skeletal structure, tai chi uses slow meditative movements to increase coordination and balance and to promote relaxation and internal strength.

Increasing numbers of studies are being done to test the efficacy of tai chi exercise in helping people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. There are many studies done so far that indicate doing tai chi may help symptoms to improve or, at the very least, not worsen.
Villa Alamar Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care residence, 45 E. Alamar Ave., has offered tai chi classes as part of its resident activity program for more than five years. The emotional, cognitive and spiritual benefits of movement and music are among the core philosophies encouraged at Villa Alamar by administrator Jackie Marston, as well as staff and caregivers. Marston describes the effects of tai chi and music as “an activity that allows our residents to express the heart of their strength with this disease — being in the present moment. In the precious moments of being wrapped into music and movement, the residents become the persons who speak profound and wonderful things. We, the providers of care, become the ones who listen to them with amazement.”

The main symptom of Alzheimer’s is the continuing loss of mental cognition and memory. Other symptoms can include depression, insomnia, disorientation and lack of interest in social activities or life in general. Tai chi movements and breathing support greater independence of movement as well as the ability to learn something new, and often results in patients feeling more confident and happier. Patients who perform tai chi regularly have also been found to get less depressed.

Tai chi also has been shown to improve balance and reflexes. In a study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and published in the Journal of American Medical Association, tai chi was the only exercise/activity to show a statistically significant decrease in the number of falls among the elderly study participants. The practitioners recorded a 25 percent decrease in injuries from falls. In another landmark study, involving 200 people age 70 and older, the tai chi exercise group cut its risk of multiple falls by a striking 47.5 percent.

Local tai chi instructor and musician Dr. Ray Tischer — whose mother was once a Villa Alamar resident — performs music and tai chi classes most Saturdays at Villa Alamar. Tischer is recognized internationally as a violist, improviser and tai chi/Qigoing specialist. He earned his doctor of musical arts in viola performance from USC and his Qigong/tai chi certification from the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi at the renowned Omega Institute of Holistic Studies.

Tischer enthusiastically supports music and sound in elder care and celebrates the homelike environment at Villa Alamar. He enjoys performing with residents at Villa Alamar where he notices the residents are honored, and nonverbal communication through movement and music is accepted as an appropriate form of expression. He is also currently working on a project with filmmaker Rich Brimer, producing a movie called Dancing with Dementia, and has developed a cutting-edge program of sound cultivation designed for persons with dementia.

When asked what he enjoys most about the tai chi class, one of the residents responded, “I am just dreaming, more and more! When is the class getting started?” The residents at Villa Alamar are clearly engaged when Tischer performs with his viola.

The main benefit of tai chi to the Alzheimer’s population and society in general is the relaxation response, deeper breathing, and better sleep, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and a more positive mental state. Villa Alamar is proud to offer residents these benefits as a component of a complete and varied activities program. Additional activities include other guest musicians, exercise and cooking classes, karaoke, many guest speakers on current and world events, and a feature called “Our Lives and Times.”

Click here for more information about residential Alzheimer’s care at Villa Alamar, or contact administrator Jackie Marston at 805.682.9345. Free tours are available.

Dr. Ray Tischer may be contacted by e-mail at dragonsedge@earthlink.net or by phone at 818.262.3741, or click here for more information.

— Elaine Harris represents Villa Alamar.