Deb Shavitz, a Zumba instructor who offers residents at Sunrise at Pikesville a free class each week, is convinced that music can jog the memory.
"Music transcends everything," she said. "I don't care what the doctors say. Part of that individual still gets the music and I see the sparkle in their expression."
Residents at the assisted living home may not remember her name, but they know she is the "exercise lady," who brings them a routine steeped in the fast-paced Zumba dance genre, rooted in South America and growing in popularity across the U.S.
The 58-year-old exercise lady is choreographing her third annual Zumbathon fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Association Sunday, Nov. 4. She hopes to raise $10,000 for research into the disease that is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and one that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. In the U.S., 5.4 million people, one in eight older Americans, are living with Alzheimer's disease.
The disease is robbing Shavitz of her 83-year-old mother, a Sunrise resident who has coped with Alzheimer's for eight years. The devoted daughter has dedicated her steps to Shirlee Dinkin, who can no longer dance.
"My mom danced all her life and I am honoring her by dancing," said Shavitz.
Shavitz brings her mother to the class, convinced the music reaches her. She deftly weaves hugs for Dinkin into the dance routine, as she leads the residents, whom she calls "my stars," through Zumba moves.
"As soon as Deb started the music, her mother's hands went up as if she was getting ready to play the maracas," said Lynette Walsch, Sunrise's executive director.
When Shavitz arrives in her hot pink tennis shoes, the residents know they will be dancing, even if it's in their seats. Only the most spirited tunes will do for the 30-minute work out.
"If you play slow music, your class will act like molasses," said Shavitz. "That upbeat rhythm — it's the best. The more alive the music, the more alive people become."
The Sunrise employees frequently join the work out and dance alongside or sometimes, arm-in-arm with the residents.
"Even those in the later stages of Alzheimer's might not be able to talk, but you see them tapping their feet and moving their hands to the music," said Erica McCoy, reminiscence coordinator at Sunrise. "Zumba just touches mind, body and spirit. It's great exercise with a good feel and everyone is interacting."
Tammy Williams, healthcare coordinator, said the Zumba half-hour works for everyone.
"I can follow Deb better than the tapes," she said. "Live is really better."
Shavitz promises the three-hour Zumbathon Sunday will be a spirited afternoon as well as a chance for enthusiasts to meet Maria Browning, renowned in Zumba circles as an education specialist, and seven instructors, who have volunteered their time. About 150 attended last year and there is room for more, she said.
"Come ready to dance," she said. "This will be a big party, but without high heels."
All those steps will raise dollars for research into Alzheimer's Disease, she said.
"There is no better cause and no harder task than to watch a loved one slip into this debilitating disease," Shavitz said. "I pray every day that my daughter won't have to go through this for me."
The Zumbathon for Alzheimer's runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, at Beth Tfiloh Synagogue, 3300 Old Court Road, Pikesville. Tickets are $20 at the door.