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Art Therapy Empowers Those with Dementia

DuMA staff and volunteers participate in an art activity following Carolyn’s presentation. Photo contributed by Becca Krapfl.

by Mindy Dalgarn

What do The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New Orleans Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, and The Dubuque Museum of Art have in common? Thanks to a grant from the Wahlert Foundation awarded in 2015, Dubuque is among an elite group that has a museum-based art therapy program for those with dementia.

Following a lively discussion of “Tangled Oaks,” group members created their own works of art using charcoal.

In the Mind’s Eye is modeled after a nonprofit program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City created by Arts & Minds. According to Carolyn Halpin-Healy, the Executive Director of Arts & Minds, the organization is committed to “improving the quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through engagement with art.” Carolyn explains that the goal of their programs is to “create positive emotional and cognitive experiences, enhance verbal and non-verbal communication, reduce isolation, and build social networks.”

This is achieved by keeping the focus on art. Carolyn continued, “This is an exciting time to be building this work in museums, which offer such promise as places of social inclusion. We are working to create a dementia-friendly world, where everyone can enjoy the power of art.”

Margaret Buhr, Director of Education at the DuMA, echoes those sentiments. “The Museum is committed to programs that are people-centered and art focused. We expect our programs to be sustainable; therefore, much thought and preparation occurs before we introduce them to the public. That is especially true of In the Mind’s Eye. Engaging with art can do so much towards improving the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. The program inspires a sense of discovery and nurtures a sense of community. Art becomes a new way to communicate. When you are with others who are sharing the same journey you may not feel as isolated.”

It has long been known that art is good for the mind and soul. Visual art stimulates the senses, provides visual pleasure, promotes relaxation, improves mood, and stimulates conversation and social interaction. And when one creates art, the entire brain is stimulated.

What is new is the realization that art therapy can be a powerful tool for treating dementia. Studies show that visual art can trigger dormant memories and emotions and stimulate the imagination. Drawing, sketching, and painting can help people with dementia express themselves through color, form, line, shape, pattern, images, and even texture. This is especially important as a person’s verbal skills deteriorate.

Since creativity stimulates the mind and triggers happiness, art therapy provides a positive outlet for expression that has been found to awaken parts of the brain that are not affected by dementia. Dr. Melissa Henston, A Place for Mom expert and geriatric psychologist, discusses art and music as alternative therapies, “Doctors and scientists have discovered that Alzheimer’s normally does not affect the parts of the brain related to emotions, creativity, and creative expression. Art and music therapy help stimulate these areas, allowing the individual affected by dementia to communicate using the emotional and creative centers of the brain, rather than logical and memory centers.”

(A Place for Mom connects moms, dads, seniors and families to the right elder care so one can have peace of mind and focus on loved ones. They help find the right nursing home, dementia care, or assisted living and even research Veterans’ benefits about how to pay for senior care.)

Through art, people with dementia can make connections and communicate in a way that many have thought were lost forever. Because of that, art therapy is a fast-growing trend that provides an opportunity for those suffering from dementia to express themselves creatively.

Dr. Daniel C. Potts is founder of Cognitive Dynamics, a company based in Tuscaloosa, AL that uses art, drama, and music to aid those with dementia. According to Dr. Potts, “Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process and individuals can express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improves and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over.” Programs foster dignity and validate those with dementia, honoring their life stories and restoring and preserving their sense of self.

With this new and exciting revelation, art museums across the country are beginning to develop programs aimed at engaging people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias and their caregivers.

In 2006, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City developed an Alzheimer’s Project based on research with Artists for Alzheimer’s (ARTZ), sponsored by the Hearthstone Foundation. Programs are offered at the Museum and at senior centers and assisted living facilities. Teleconference courses are available for those who are homebound.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, special programs include caregiver workshops, professional development for educators, and direct service programs for patients of The Columbia University Department of Aging and Dementia.

The Berman Museum of Art in Pennsylvania takes selections from particular collections to local nursing homes and The Oklahoma City Museum of Art offers a day out for those with dementia and their caregivers giving them exclusive use of the museum on a day when it is normally closed.

In order to take full advantage of the benefits of art therapy, those with dementia should have opportunities to create their own art too. Art therapy can serve as a form of physical therapy to help those who suffer from the disease improve their dexterity and motor skills. In the Mind’s Eye participants have used brushes, scissors, glue, and mediums that include paper, paint, and pastels. Watercolor, charcoal, and clay will be used in upcoming programs.

Carolyn conducted an intensive training program with all DuMA docents and museum staff last March. According to Laura Nissen, Director of Marketing at Luther Manor, “The three-day program ensured that all staff and volunteers were appropriately trained in the Arts & Minds approach and practice. Everyone understood how to create the right environment to facilitate an open, safe, and engaging setting for those with dementia and their care companions. It was also essential to learn how to elevate the art to the highest level possible and allow it to take center stage for 90 minutes.”

Margaret continued, “We debrief after each session, discuss what worked and what aspects could be tweaked. There is a genuine commitment on the part of the volunteers to learn and grow and be open.” Ultimately, the staff and volunteers created a positive and enjoyable experience through the transformational power of art. Said Laura, “Somewhere at the junction of science, dementia, and art lies a beautiful, joyful experience for us all.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America affirms that making art, in a community setting or at home, can “excite the imagination of people with dementia.” As a natural therapy that doesn’t involve medication or surgery, art therapy produces positive results with no side effects. It enriches the lives of those with dementia by:

  • Providing a sense of accomplishment
  • Inspiring conversation and interaction with others
  • Enabling self-expression
  • Stimulating the brain
  • Managing stress

Judy Holstein director of Chicago’s CJE Senior Life Day Service explains, “People still have imaginations intact even at the very, very end of their progressive disease. Art therapy gives patients a way to express that resilient spirit.” Art has the power to liberate, stimulate, and enrich our lives… and that should not end when one is diagnosed with dementia.


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