Making or even viewing art has a positive impact on those living with memory loss.
Have you ever noticed how much calmer you feel after spending an hour knitting, coloring, or drawing? Art therapy enhances well-being for people with dementia. Those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias experience the same good feelings from engaging in art.
Whether it’s through a painting class for memory-impaired adults or touring a museum exhibit, the visual arts have a profound impact on mood and memory.
The Alzheimer’s Association Take the Lead
Recognizing a connection between visual art and well-being, the Alzheimer’s Association launched Memories in the Making (check the site for your local chapter), a national art program, to allow people with memory impairment to express themselves through watercolor painting. The weekly program is about more than painting flowers and birds. Working with a trained facilitator, participants share stories about art and reminisce about their lives. For participants who have trouble speaking, the art therapy program gives them an alternative way to communicate.
“Dementia patients … are unable to verbalize thinking to express their feelings, but retain basic visual and motor skills, which allow them to express emotions and gain comfort through lines, shapes, and colors in art appreciation and creative activities,” notes one study. “Art therapy provides patients with a non-verbal mode of expression through an intuitive graphical visual presentation, which helps the patients vent negative emotions and alleviate behavioral and psychological symptoms, thereby improving the quality of life.”
Sit in on an art class for the memory impaired, and you’ll notice some beautiful images. Researchers believe when the language-controlling left side of the brain becomes damaged, the right side, which controls visual creativity, has space to thrive.
Sculptor Mary Hecht, the subject of a 2013 paper on art and Alzheimer’s disease, suffered from vascular dementia and was wheelchair-bound due to multiple strokes. She could not name certain animals or remember any words therapists asked her to recall. Her artistic abilities, however, did not disappear. Art enhances well-being for her as she sketches portraits of people on the spot as well as drawing figures from memory.
Art as a social boost
A study out of the U.K. looked at the benefits of art therapy on mood and cognition in people with dementia. Participants participated in either art therapy or physical activity once a week for 40 weeks. The art therapy group showed higher ratings in mental alertness, sociability, and physical and social engagement at the end of the study than the physically active group.
Addressing the needs of the 5.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease — projected to climb to 14 million by 2050 — museums across the U.S. are developing special programs that combine art with social engagement. Frye Art Museum, in Seattle, hosts the monthly Alzheimer’s Café, which is part of the museum’s Creative Aging Program. People living with dementia and their caregivers can participate in a gallery tour followed by fellowship.
The McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Illinois, offers “Senior Reminiscence” programming for local seniors. It also brings objects from its collection to area senior centers as a way to spark conversation and memory.
While painting and sculpting classes won’t cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, they can improve the lives of people living with the disease. If you’re looking for a new way to spend an afternoon with mom or dad, put down the remote and pick up a paintbrush instead.
Want to get creative with your loved one? Follow these tips from the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Keep the project on an adult level. Avoid anything that might seem demeaning or childlike.
- Build conversation into the project. Provide encouragement, discuss what the person is creating, or share memories.
- Give them a hand. You may need to help your loved one start the brush stroke when painting, for example.
- Use safe materials. Avoid toxic substances and sharp tools.
- Take it slow. Know you can finish the project another time.