The images of a lifetime remain in the memory, but they just won’t unlock for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Scientists are discovering that most memories are stored as images and aren’t destroyed by dementia or Alzheimer’s. This finding has incredibly important implications for dementia care program offerings. Incorporating art therapy might help release memories and soothe dementia patients who struggle to communicate.
Art therapist Ruth Abraham is author of the book, When Words Have Lost Their Meaning: Alzheimer’s Patients Communicate Through Art (Praeger Publishers, 2004). She is a big proponent of using art therapy, saying that it “it helps them to express their feelings when they can no longer do so with words. This use of art helps people with Alzheimer’s disease feel less lonely and isolated. It can also calm their restlessness.”
Doctors have noted that the big bad four A’s of Alzheimer’s – anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy – often go away when they see or experience art. Their so-called “emotional memories” awaken and they seem to relate better to people and surroundings.
What does art therapy look like?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association art therapy for someone with middle to late stage Alzheimer’s should:
- Make the project as adult level as possible to keep people interested and engaged.
- Include communication and conversation during the art activity. It provides a healthy and positive outlet for expression and gives dementia care program staff the chance to encourage and praise the person creating the art. Ask about the art try to understand what it means to that person.
- Help the dementia patient get started, perhaps by doing the first brushstrokes or the first application of pastels.
- Don’t rush the session, because this can lead to agitation and undermine the whole idea of art therapy.
- Try scrapbooking as a fun and relatively easy activity. Provide colorful cut-outs from magazines and add some photographs from that person’s life – family members can be a big help for this kind of project.
- Use safe, non-toxic glues and don’t provide sharp tools such as scissors.
Art Therapy partnerships
For dementia patients who can still comfortably travel in group outings, consider taking them to an art museum. How could this help? “There’s something about paintings and sculpture that helps bring thoughts and feelings to the surface,” says Francesca Rosenberg of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. People with dementia lose short term memory, so a movie is unsatisfying because they can’t recall the story line. However, a beautiful painting or sculpture is just there to enjoy.
Consider forming a partnership between a local museum and your dementia care community. Oklahoma City Museum of Art's Healing Art's program works with three local memory care residences by visiting monthly and helping residents paint, draw, sculpt and print while talking about their art.
Ask if activities at the dementia care communities you’re considering include art or craft programs. They can make a world of difference in your loved one’s sense of well-being. Looking for a dementia care community for your loved one? Learn more about our communities or contact us today.