Enjoying Art as Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
Works of the “Masters” are best
Pictured above is a docent led art tour specifically for those with memory loss and their care partners. The museum in the photograph is the Brooks Museum of art in Memphis. If you live in or near Memphis, we recommend that you contact the museum to get details of upcoming tours. But more and more art museums around the country are realizing the benefit of such a program. We will keep a list on this page of programs that recognize enjoying art as therapy for Alzheimer’s.
The Brooks Museum is just one of many art museums that conduct tours specifically for people who have dementia. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is another. The following is from an article by Bill Blakemore for ABC News, New York, July 2, 2006:
Irene Brenton has Alzheimer’s, yet there she was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, laughing, getting witty about a painting called “The Breakfast Room.
“Maybe he was hungry,” she said. “He painted it before he ate!”
Usually, Alzheimer’s patients develop what doctors call “the four A’s” — anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy.
Yet there was Sheila Barnes, with severe short-term memory loss, chatting about her past — “My father was a writer and an editor,” she recalled — while contemplating a French masterpiece and relaxing in front of Rousseau’s mysterious “Sleeping Gypsy.”
“I think it’s a picture of mutual peace and trust,” Barnes said. “The animal is not afraid of the man; the man is not afraid of the animal.”
The four A’s often fade in front of great art, and patients calm down, say doctors. What they call “emotional memory” comes alive — feelings they’ve had before — related to events and people in their past lives. Nurses and family members report less anxiety and apathy after the museum visits.
“She talked more,” said Myron Brenton, Irene’s husband. “She’s talking again about doing photography. She was a great photographer. … We’ve had many more little conversations.”
This from an article by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian that appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of the New York Times:
On one recent Friday, Karen Bedrosian Richardson, 65, attended “Mindful Connections” 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.
Karen and her mother were attending “Mindful Connections”, an art tour at the Ruben Museum of Art in New York. Mindful Connections is a program for people with dementia and their caregivers, and is co-hosted by the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Art museums all over the country are instituting similar programs. The reason for this is clear, if you have watched the video clip above on this page, and becomes compelling once you see (or read about) the amazing transformations resulting from these programs. A few more examples:
“People living with dementia reported elevated mood for the next week, higher self-esteem, caregivers reported feeling a lot of support. And basically it was just a great time.”
~ Ashley Pritchard, spokeswoman of the Denver Art Museum
“The loss of short term memory prevents Alzheimer’s patients from enjoying, say, a movie — because you need to remember the beginning to understand the end. But a painting is always all there, all at once.”
~ John Zeisel, director of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care
“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”
~ Oliver Sacks, speaking to Randy Kennedy as reported in the New York Times.
From that same New York Times article:
Museum and Alzheimer’s care officials say that at the very least, they see temporary but palpable, and moving, improvement in the small group of people who have participated in the tours. Hannah Goodwin, the manager of accessibility at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recounted watching an elderly man react to a Stuart Davis painting. “Very spontaneously, he just starting talking about the painting and about the time period in New York,” she said. “He was talking about jazz and improvisation and everything. It was very beautiful and unexpected. There was this absolute clarity and connection that I think was really sparked by the painting.”
And the anecdotes go on and on; but no one is entirely certain why these outings have the effect that they do. Why is viewing art so beneficial to people with dementia? What is the mechanism in the brain that leads to such improvement? This phenomenon is being studied, but the important thing is that it does what it does.
Great art is a key. Viewing works by recognized masters does a better job than viewing just any old painting or sculpture. Obviously, the masters are the masters because of their skills. Their works are more inspiring, more memorable, more compelling than others, but they are also more recognizable. Reminiscence, another effective therapy, may play a part in this.
Getting out, socializing, seeing great art in its original; all these factors probably have something to do with the overall effectiveness of the art experience to the individual with dementia, but because of physical, geographic, or other limitations, taking a field trip to an art museum is not always feasible. Reproductions, even digitized art is a suitable substitute for the real thing, and may, in some cases, make viewing easier. Bring art prints and art books into the home or residential community. Pick one well known painting (I would stay away from photographs of sculptures), hang it on a wall or place it in a book stand, and start a conversation. You might want to first introduce it — the name of the painting and the artist, when it was painted, etc. If the print does not come with much information, do a little online or library research first. Then ask some questions and allow your audience to run with it.
This is an exercise in creative and emotional expression, so NO JUDGING! There are no right or wrong responses; there are no silly questions. Go for as much interaction, with the artwork and with others, as possible and give a lot of “positive feedback”. I Remember Better When I Paint, featured above on this page, shows several museum visits, and gives a good idea how to conduct such a session, and why. Draw as much as you can out of the participants: “What does this picture make you think of?” “How does this picture make you feel?” Their observations and commentary will surprise you.
A new way to bring the works of the masters into a residential setting is a program called For Love & Art. Participating museums have provided digitized art which is made available on “digital ArtBooks” which are made available to hospices, hospitals, and residential communities through individual or group philanthropy. Learn more….
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