Healthy Living

How Art Can Be Used by Dementia Patients to Make Connections

For those suffering from dementia, confusion and disorientation can be a daily struggle. They may have short term memory loss or worse, lose their ability to communicate. These side effects are frustrating for dementia patients and can be equally as frustrating for their caregivers and family members, and it can be painful to deal with Alzheimer's disease.

Art programs for dementia patients and their families are popping up throughout the United States and Canada. There have been several studies showing the tremendous benefits of art therapy to help improve communication with family members by bringing back memories through painting and sculptures and building better relationships with their family and caregivers. The ability to paint and draw does not seem to be as affected by alzheimer's and it allows patients to express themselves through art.

Once an artist...

A study by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto highlights a woman named Mary Hecht, who was once an artist by trade and had a well known career as a sculptor. Though she had several strokes and was severely affected by dementia, Mary maintained her ability to draw sketches and portraits even when her symptoms have progressed. According to Dr. Luis Fornazzari, lead author and consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Memory Clinic, art opens up the mind.  He went on to say that Mary was a remarkable example of how artistic abilities are preserved even with degeneration of the brain and loss of day-to-day memory functions.

Mary was wheelchair bound, and as time went on she could not recall common names of animals, could not draw a simple picture of a clock with the correct time or remember words she was asked to recall. However, while listening to the radio she heard of famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s death, and then she immediately began drawing a highly detailed portrait of Mstislav Rostropovich. The medical staff who assisted Mary said, while she was drawing, she spoke eloquently and without any hesitation about her art.

Memories in the making

The National Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado has a program called Memories in the Making, or MIM for short. In this program, a trained art teacher helps encourage the patients to be creative by painting their thoughts, emotions, and memories. Participants in the MIM program find comfort with a blank canvas and a paint brush, and afterwards when they finish their paintings they feel accomplished and proud of their work. Leaders of MIM say artwork becomes the patient’s voice.

MIM facilitators say that the dementia participants gain self esteem and have better attention spans and focus, since their neurons become activated and they have an outlet for their emotions. This also increases the amount of socialization they have, and it allows them to tap into past memories and encourage them create connections. MIM has grown to over 100 locations in Colorado and has hopes to spread throughout the U.S.

Connections through art

In central Minnesota, Jim and Linda Peterson participated in a pilot program called Art Sparks located at the Paramount Center for the Arts. Art Sparks aims to help dementia patients make connections, spark camaraderie, and improve communications between patients and their loved ones. Jim refers to this program as a journey for him and his wife, as she is just in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and he is taking care of her.

Jim went on to say the art sessions give him a break in their day to day life. It’s like an outlet of creativity and relaxing for the pair to enjoy together. Jim was a banker, not an artist, but he truly looked forward to the classes with his wife. At the end of the pilot program, the participants were surveyed and every single one of them said they would return again if the art classes were offered once again.

Jane Oxton was the director of Art Sparks, and she said that after the pilot there is definitely a need for these types of art programs among dementia patients and their caregivers across the nation. Jane said a typical art session would include looking at photographs of artwork and discussing any memories the pieces may have sparked.

What followed was socialization and building on relationships, where sufferers of memory loss and their spouses or children could talk with one another about their diseases, symptoms, what to expect and give support to each other. Jim said he found comfort from talking with other caregivers, he realized he wasn’t alone in his role and that he had support from others.

After a period of socialization, the group would work on crafts, painting, or even knitting. One woman even found her love of knitting again. In the past, she had knit detailed sweaters and even though she had to relearn the skill, she was still able to. This gave the woman confidence to learn more and try new things. 

What doctors are saying

Art therapy is helpful for dementia patients because it allows them to communicate in a way that is different than speech. They can express themselves through art instead of trying to communicate through words. Dr. Daniel Potts, neurologist and dementia specialist, also says that art and music seem to draw from a different part of the brain other than memory and cognition. And, when patients use art therapy to express themselves, they feel accomplishment, satisfaction, and joy from completing their art projects. They find that they can express themselves in ways words are not able.

Dr. Corinne Fischer studied a man whose health was declining from Alzheimer’s disease. Although his health overall was getting worse, he kept his ability to play the piano and could even learn new music. Dr. Fischer also worked on a study of bilingual dementia patients. She discovered that those patients who were bilingual had twice as much cognitive reserve than those who only knew one language.

Dr. Fischer and Dr. Fornazzari urge schools to keep art in their curriculums. Instead of taking out art, school s believe that music and sculpting they say schools need to focus on them just as much as mathematics and history. The more studies that are completed, the more important art has become. There truly is a connection between art and the increased communication among dementia patients.

Art stimulates the senses

We all know that art stimulates a person’s senses. From a small child to a patient suffering from Alzheimer's disease, art engages imagination and triggers emotions. If a dementia patient is struggling to speak, give him a paint brush and ask him to create a scene, any scene that may come to his mind. The result may actually surprise you, and if he or she draws something, maybe ask about it and see what memory sparked just from drawing that simple, yet meaningful drawing.

The studies have shown that art will spark a memory and cause some conversation while even creating a community. So many dementia sufferers feel lonely and isolated, especially if they are living at home still. By finding a local art program it gets them out of their daily routine, encourages them to create and to have a relationship with others in their same situations.

Encourage anyone you know with dementia or Alzheimer's to be creative, which you can do this at home or at an art class. The magic begins when you work together. Try to start a project with a grandparent, ask them to draw a picture for you. Art can help relieve the stress of a tough day, and it also helps relax both the sufferer and the caregiver.