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Walking the Labyrinth to Peace - Innovative Alzheimer's Therapy

Posted over 8 years ago by Susan Rinkus Farrell

The mind begins to short circuit. Performing tasks that once were as natural as breathing becomes a source of frustration. Confusion begins to crush hope. The caregivers for early- to mid-stage Alzheimer's residents know that these misfires aren't going to go away.

At the Alexian Brothers Valley Residence (ABVR) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, an ancient ritual--walking the labyrinth-- is being used both as a therapy and a devotional aid for these residents. It taps into the spirituality that remains deep within their hearts and gives them "A Place Where They Can't Get Lost"-the name of the ABVR labyrinth project.

Labyrinths, ancient structures that predate Christianity, are simply winding patterns of concentric circles, for example, Hopi Medicine Wheels, Celtic labyrinths, etc. A labyrinth differs from a maze in that it is "unicursal," i.e., it has a single path leading to the center, with no cul-de-sacs or forks. In the Middle Ages, many cathedrals and churches had labyrinths embedded in their floors, the most famous being the 11-circuit labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France. Labyrinths in the great cathedrals gave the opportunity for pilgrims who could not travel to Jerusalem to follow "in the footsteps of Christ."

Labyrinths invite us on a journey of presence. They offer an opportunity to be with the Holy One, ourselves and one another. The labyrinth is a powerful spiritual tool for prayer and discernment. It allows us to experience on many levels the Mystery of which we are all a part.

The spiritual discipline of the labyrinth involves a "walking meditation" and is a metaphor for the soul's spiritual journey. It quiets the mind and opens the soul to a sense of wholeness and wellness. The tradition of labyrinth walks was recovered in the United States in the early '90s at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and, in recent years, the labyrinth has come to be recognized as an instrument of holistic healing. The Rev. Canon Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral has used labyrinth walks with groups of children with ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactive disorder) and has discovered that it helps focus and quiet them in a way that cognitive therapies fail to do.

Owned and operated by the Immaculate Conception Province of the Alexian Brothers of America, ABVR is a dedicated Alzheimer's facility that provides pastoral care to residents of many faith traditions. Along with the Brothers and a Roman Catholic priest, chaplains of several faiths, including Episcopalian and Baptist, serve residents.

To introduce the project, a labyrinth canvas was purchased through the Alexian Brothers Ministry Fund. PAXworks, an Indianapolis-based design firm owned by John Ridder, produced our 5-circuit labyrinth. This large, portable patterned canvas is specially treated to resist stains and candle wax. It is stored between walks.

At the Valley Residence, three 14-resident wings radiate from a central lobby. When walks are scheduled, furniture is removed and the labyrinth canvas is laid on the carpeted floor. Because of the depth-perception difficulties that many Alzheimer's residents experience, we deviated from the traditional dark blue or black lines. We used a light blue design on an off-white canvas that would be perceived as one-dimensional by residents.

To create a calming atmosphere, all background noises (jingling keys, pagers, cell phones) are minimized. Votive candles in fireproof containers are placed on the edges of the canvas. Spiritual music, including chants, hymns, and folk and gospel hymns help the walker to center and calm himself/herself. Visually and aurally, walkers get the message: This is a place of peace, a place where you can't get lost.

Before we introduced our residents to the labyrinth, we had an initial in-service for staff to acquaint them with the labyrinth tradition and instruct them on accompanying the resident on this journey. Staff opinions ranged from skepticism to "let's do it!" To participate fully, a resident must be ambulatory, although some residents in wheelchairs, attended by a caregiver, have tried and enjoyed the experience.  READ ENTIRE ARTICLE


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