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How Art Therapy Helps Caregivers and Those with Dementia

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Art therapy is used for many things; it helps people recover from trauma, it helps family units transform themselves and it can help facilitate psychiatric counseling. Art therapy is known for its ability to encourage interaction, sharing and trust in a safe place. Now it is being used to help those showing early signs of dementia and memory loss.
 
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is piloting an educational program for people with dementia and their caregivers. The purpose is to “…create positive experiences for all participants and to create space where people with dementia and other forms of memory loss can connect with the Gallery’s collection and with their loved ones.”
 
The program is called “Just Us at the National Gallery of Art”1 and takes the form of a bi-weekly guided tour through the galleries. With the help of an educator, it becomes a meditation on a few select paintings in the gallery. Each session features a theme like water scenes, landscapes, or portraits. Participants are invited to share their ideas on the paintings and make observations about what they see. It brings the caregiver and their loved one with dementia together in a common space.

  • Art, like music, has the power to stimulate memories held deep in the brain. Just like music can elicit words from non-verbal Alzheimer’s patients, art can stimulate positive memories of childhood and family. Art therapy can provide comfort and positive visual stimulation for those with dementia.
  • Organizations are using art therapy in many creative ways to benefit those with dementia. The University of Alabama Honors College has a program called “Bring Art to Life” that takes art therapy to people suffering from mild to moderate dementia and who live in the surrounding communities. Three to four students are paired with each participant with the assignment of learning the person’s life story over the course of the eight-week art therapy program. The results, as reported by Alzheimer’s.net2, are nothing short of stunning.
  • One 90-year-old participant is a former artist suffering with vision loss due to macular degeneration. She said that she had been given her life back by learning that she can still create beautiful art with activities tailored toward engaging her sense of touch.

A more advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in his late 50s has continued craft activities (such as building birdhouses) at home more than two years after completing the program. His family says that it keeps him interested, engaged, and has given him the confidence to try new things.
One woman in her 80s with moderate Alzheimer’s had stopped cooking and even interacting with younger members of her family. After participating in the Bring Art to Life program she cooked Thanksgiving dinner and has continued to enjoy cooking.
 
If you are the dementia caregiver for a loved one, consider bringing art and music into your home. You can use any scrap paper, colored pencils, markers or paint brushes and watercolors to begin. Find a large, simple drawing and sit with your loved one to replicate it using the art tools you have gathered. It is a moment to share together and an activity that will bring your loved one joy.

[1] National Art Gallery

[2] How Art Therapy Enhances the Quality of Life for Dementia Patients

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