12/09/2014 08:27 EST | Updated 02/08/2015 05:59 EST

Dancing program tries to better dementia patients' lives

Dementia patients living at Baycrest, a long-term care home in Toronto, are being prescribed dance to exercise their minds. 

The project aims to improve the immediate lives and day-to-day functions of seniors living with dementia, and possibly even to slow the disease's progress.

It started in the spring as a pilot program with Canada's National Ballet School and, though research continues on its effects, staff are convinced it works. 

"I see people's mood improve. People are smiling. People are laughing. People are interacting," said Baycrest recreation therapist Rachel Gavendo. "We see for the rest of the day people are genuinely in better moods despite having dementia."

Number of patients to double

In 2011, 747,000 people in Canada had dementia, according to government estimates. As the population ages that number is expected to swell to 1.5 million by 2031 — one of the reasons researchers are looking for better ways to treat dementia, and to make patients' lives more meaningful.

"I'm not a great dancer. I never was," said student and Baycrest resident Mari Waisglass. "But I love it. I just love it."

The dance classes for dementia patients join those already in full swing at Baycrest for Parkinson's disease patients. 

"It was a little scary, I will be honest. But they were just so receptive here and it's just so exciting to see their faces and see how they come alive when we work with them," said instructor Anuschka Roes of Canada's National Ballet School.