By some measures, Alzheimer’s disease has become the most feared diagnosis one can hear ― even more so than cancer. Additionally, most people think of Alzheimer’s as an “old people’s” disease. Taking these two thoughts together, Hazel Minnick has defied assumptions. She has shown that one can live with Alzheimer’s disease even when it tries to steal meaning and memories in middle age.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 53, Hazel has been living with the disease for more than 18 years. Her early years were grim even as she fought to do everything she could to improve her health. She used a wheelchair much of time.
Then, while attending a bridal show, she stopped to rest at the table of professional dancer Chris Ingram. Ingram asked her if she’d like to learn how to dance. Hazel’s response was what one would expect. “How can I dance when I can’t even walk?” Ingram just told her to stop by the World Champion Productions Dance Studio and see.
One can put this moment down to God, karma, or happenstance but, for Hazel Minnick, meeting Ingram was the beginning of many years of living fully with Alzheimer’s disease. She learned ballroom dancing at Ingram’s studio and then worked her way up through dance competitions, even contributing to Alzheimer’s fundraisers through her dancing.
Later came the books. Her first book was Living in My Shadow: My Journey with Alzheimer’s, which is available on Amazon. This book shares the first years of struggle to control her AD, including her early years with medications that she says helped her cognitively but had side effects that confined her to a wheelchair much of the time. The book also describes how dancing changed her life.
When HealthCentral read an article in Neuroscience News titled “Dancing Can Reverse the Signs of Aging in the Brain,” and connected that to Hazel Minnick’s experience, we knew that we must interview Hazel, which we did by email.
First, a few words about the study about dancing and aging, as documented in Frontiers in Neuroscience:
"Two groups of seniors were compared. One group did traditional aerobic exercise while one group took up dancing…. [O]nly the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.”
Interview with Hazel Minnick
Health Central: Hazel, we know that you met Chris Ingram by chance and that’s how you started to dance. Alzheimer’s is progressive, and while dancing gave you back your life in many ways, it did not cure your AD. How do you begin your days at this point in the disease?
Hazel Minnick: I am living proof that there is a means to live with Alzheimer’s, but life is still a daily battle for me. Each morning, when I awake, surrounded by PR posters of my dancing, I must process who I am and who I belong to. Also, I follow a careful diet that has worked for me. I exercise in whatever way my body will allow and I work on my next book.
HC: What was the greatest reward that’s come from your dancing? Improved physical abilities, mental alertness, or the social aspects?
HM: Tough question! I am so thankful that I have experienced the rejuvenation of my mind and body and discovered a means to live a productive, meaningful life from the benefits of my ballroom dance. However, the greatest reward from my dancing is the means to create my voice for the message of hope for the disease of Alzheimer’s through my story and my dance so that I might bring hope to others on this journey. Feeling totally blessed.
HC: That’s a beautiful answer, Hazel. I know my last question was tough but here is one that is even tougher. Do you think that you’d be alive today if you hadn’t begun ballroom dancing?
HM: In pondering this answer, I must first define “life.” There is life with a beating heart and then there is life with a beating heart and a knowing mind. When diagnosed in 1999, I was told that without intervention the progressive lifespan of my Alzheimer’s disease was around eight to 10 years. With the introduction of meds in 2004, then meds and ballroom dance in 2007, my predicted expiration date instead became a year of celebration.
Indeed, ballroom dance infused new life into my mind and body. Every day is a battle to still be me, and I must make a personal effort to not to succumb to the deep sleep of this disease. Without ballroom dance I would just have become another wheelchair lining a nursing home hallway. Today I live independently knowing that I am still me. The music and methodical movement of split-second decision making in the lead-and-follow process of ballroom dance blazes new trails and creates new neural pathways in my brain, which in turn rejuvenates my brain to process new memories.
Without a shadow of doubt, I truly believe not only am I physically alive, but I am mentally alive because of the continued process and enjoyable movement of ballroom dance ― not just on the ballroom floor but the constant dancing in the ballroom floor of my brain. When I can’t dance with my body, I dance with my mind.
HC: You suffered an injury while dancing but obviously that didn’t cause you to quit. What happened?
HM: Sadly, as can happen to any athlete, I dislocated my hip on the dance floor. The injury was definitely a turning point in my daily life but it is something I do not focus upon. It is just one more thing that I chose to overcome. I danced in water through the rehabilitation and after six months of recuperation and rehabilitation I performed on the Ryman Auditorium stage one more time as the reigning Silver Star, and I’ve continued to dance. I dance regularly in the water to practice my choreography for “Remember Me” that I dance with my grandson, Zak.
HC: Please tell us about “Remember Me.”
HM: My signature dance is "Dare to Live, with the inspiring lyrics of “in this world of nameless faces no one truth only pieces, dare to live to the end,” but I’m in the process of choreographing a final dance with my 16-year-old, 6’ 5” grandson Zak, a.k.a., Big Z. We dance a theatrical interpretation of the song “Remember Me.” The dance partnership has created a special bond between us, not only as dance partners but for bringing understanding of Alzheimer’s disease to the next generation.
The mini-documentary, which will be entitled “The Unlikely Dancer,” will enable me to leave a legacy of hope, as well as my message of hope for the disease of Alzheimer’s. I am determined to create a better understanding of this very misunderstood disease.
HC: You are now wrapping up your second book, to be titled The Unlikely Dancer, which will promote ballroom dance for rehabilitation of the mind and body. Yet you still aren’t done. You mentioned that a third book is planned, titled Dancing to the Light, which will focus on you and your words “dance the final dance home to heaven.”
To say that you are extraordinary, Hazel, is far too weak. You defy labels, which may be your secret. Thank you for giving us a look into how you’ve lived your life with Alzheimer’s, and for giving so many hope as you’ve shown how ballroom dancing changed the trajectory of your disease.
Find Hazel on Facebook at Dancing to Live.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.