Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s
Enjoy Art or Create Art – It’s All Good
There is indeed a wealth of research, as well as anecdotal support for the confidence that the Society for the Arts has in the positive affects creative activity has for the person with dementia. An excerpt from the documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint (below) demonstrates this affect; to see otherwise despondent people come to life, become active and social and verbal, is nothing short of amazing. Please take the time to view this three minute clip, or come back to it when you have time. It will convince you that an art program will benefit the individual with Alzheimer’s disease, possibly in a very big way.
I Remember Better When I Paint: The Benefits of Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
Why This Film?
No drugs yet exist that can effectively prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease. What recourse, then, for the millions of people who suffer from this terrible degenerative disease, which causes a progressive decline of cognitive skills, memory loss, and withdrawal?
It is becoming increasingly evident – initiatives that help people with Alzheimer’s get involved in art and other creative activity obtain surprising results. Scientists have discovered that Alzheimer’s disease normally spares, to a very large extent, the parts of the brain related to emotions, creativity and creative expression. Neurologists — including several who are interviewed in the documentary — recognize the benefits of non-pharmacological therapies. Nonetheless, only a very small percentage of nursing homes and care facilities are yet making effective use of these approaches, and the film urges that an extensive effort now be made to share these positive approaches and hopeful possibilities.
~ From I Remember Better When I Paint
There are still a few copies of this groundbreaking film available at our store. Order yours today.
Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s affects the brain in a predictable way. It destroys different areas of the brain progressively and in a predictable order. Everyone is aware that Alzheimer’s affects memory, and short term memory is one of the first things to fail. Eventually the disease will upset the working of every part of a person’s brain. This includes perception and the ability to understand, plan, and predict. One’s emotions and creativity seem to remain viable until much later in the diseases progression. (Read more» about the process and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.)[pullquote]It is becoming increasingly evident – initiatives that help people with Alzheimer’s get involved in art and other creative activity obtain surprising results.
When working with people who have dementia, it is far more productive to communicate using emotional and creative centers rather than logic and memory centers. This is why art therapy for Alzheimer’s is such an effective means of improving quality of life.
Now we must make an important distinction. Painting a picture is not necessarily art therapy, in the strictest sense, regardless of the benefit derived from the process. The American Art Therapy Association claims that “art therapy can only be practiced by an individual who possesses the required training, certification, and/or state licensure. Bona fide art therapy is beyond the scope of practice of non-art therapists.” Art therapists are highly trained, knowledgeable practitioners. To be recognized by the Association, a therapist requires a master’s degree and hundreds of hours of supervised practicum.
Art therapists are master-level clinicians who work with people of all ages across a broad spectrum of practice. Guided by ethical standards and scope of practice, their education and supervised training prepares them for culturally proficient work with diverse populations in a variety of settings. Honoring individuals’ values and beliefs, art therapists work with people who are challenged with medical and mental health problems, as well as individuals seeking emotional, creative, and spiritual growth.
We recommend that you participate in art programs conducted by certified therapists. Whenever you can. If you are a part of a memory care community with an art program, do what you can to get a therapist working with you. (If you are a part of a memory care community without an art program, get one started. Really.)
It is likely beyond your budget to have a weekly session with an art therapist, but one could help you set up and supervise your program. If even this isn’t possible, or practical, Memories in the Making (MIM) can help. Based on a program developed by the Alzheimer’s Association of Orange County, this book was written to help harness the amazing healing properties of art. If you are caring for a loved one at home, MIM can help you understand and implement a small scale but effective program. Even then, and if you can, watch for art therapy sessions in your community (library, etc.) .
Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s: Two Ways
We can create our own art or music or stories, or we can enjoy those things that others have created. Both activities can provide an enjoyable diversion for any of us, and both are therapeutic for the person with Alzheimer’s disease.
Strictly speaking, art therapy involves the creation of art, as seen in these various definitions:
- National Institutes of Health: Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.
- Art Therapy Credentials Board: Art therapy is a human service profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
- American Medical Association and Health Professions Network: Art therapists use drawing, painting, and other art processes to assess and treat clients with emotional, cognitive, physical, and/or developmental needs and disorders.
- American Art Therapy Association: Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.
Painting and drawing, even sculpting, are common hobbies. All are excellent ways to relax, but creating art is more than just a recreational pastime. Art provides a way to reach inside ourselves, to put on paper or some other medium, a representation of thoughts and feelings that we may not be able to express in any other way. Sometimes words fail us.
Language is affected fairly early in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. If you provide care for a person who has Alzheimer’s you have probably, at one time or another, seen him (or her) struggle to find the words to say what he wants to say. The idea is there. He has the desire to communicate that idea to you. He just can’t get the word out. We have all at one time or another felt that the word we need to relate a thought is “on the tip of my tongue”. We just can’t get it out. Imagine this feeling magnified ten- or twenty-fold, and you will start to share the frustration of a person with Alzheimer’s.
On one recent Friday, Karen Bedrosian Richardson, 65, attended “Mindful Connections” (at the Ruben Museum of Art in New York) with her 90-year-old mother, Isabel Bedrosian, who is in the late stages of dementia. “What I get out of it is the enjoyment of learning about a different culture,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said. “And the opportunity to use a vocabulary that during the day I don’t get to use.” In caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s, she said, “the conversation with that person tends to be repeating the same thing over and over.”
“She’s alert for longer periods during the day, her walking is better, her responsiveness to stimuli around her in the home is better. It’s as though she’s been energized,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said.
Art or creative therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease need not look the same as art (say, an art class) might look for someone else. Bernice had always been a creative lady and also a perfectionist. At one point when Bernice was in a memory care community, Holly brought an adult coloring book for her. It had pictures of people dressed in fancy clothes. Holly got out some markers and asked her if she would like to color. It was always a challenge to get Bernice to do anything like this — she did not want to risk making a mistake. Holly moved the coloring book aside for a while, and they talked.
Before long, Holly slid the book back in front of herself, picked up a marker and started coloring. Bernice was obviously interested. Holly asked, “What color do you think this should be?. She didn’t like to make mistakes, but Bernice was never shy about offering her opinion. They finished the page in this way; Bernice chose the color for each area and Holly filled it in. Choosing the colors was Bernice’s creative process, her art therapy. Bernice couldn’t have been more pleased with the finished picture if she had done it all herself!
As with everything else when working with persons with dementia, be prepared to modify the task or activity to satisfy the individual’s interests and abilities. It helps to know as much as possible about the person you are working with, but it also requires observation and experimentation. If something is not working, or not being accepted, try using it or doing it a little differently. Or put it away and try something else. Maybe this activity is for another day.
It is important to remember that in this context we use the word “art” as a verb; art is a creative process, not a product. If a person is enjoying her art experience, if it helps her to communicate what is inside of her, if she takes pride in what she is doing, it makes no difference what it looks like when it’s done.
WATERCOLOR IS EASY
Painting is a very easy activity to do at home. It requires only a few supplies, and those supplies are generally inexpensive. Remember to begin a session with a little discussion about the painting process, and pick a subject to be painted. That subject could be a memory, or it might be a model to copy. The model might be a flower, a bowl of fruit, or a painting by Raphael. (A reproduction of a painting by Raphael works well too if you don’t happen to have an original.)
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