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The Benefits of Art Therapy for Dementia

a senior woman making a clay bowl

Dementia is a broad term for an array of complicated diseases that affect an individual’s memory, various physical functions and the ability to communicate. But today, more and more research is showing that art therapy may help individuals reclaim some of what dementia has taken from them by opening up new avenues of expression.

The concept is surprisingly straightforward. When dementia predominantly affects the left side of the brain, loss of language ensues. In such cases, art therapy is helpful because the functions generally recognized as creative — including our ability to process color, shape and spatial relationships, or to respond to music — are housed in the right side of the brain. That’s a somewhat simplified explanation but, according to Bruce L. Miller, M.D., professor of neurology and director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, “We think that in patients with language loss, the visual side of their brain stops being inhibited by the verbal side and that allows their visual creativity to be released. We have evidence now from functional imaging that it’s actually happening.”1

Benefits of Art Therapy

As more and more memory care centers and caregivers incorporate art therapy into their treatment plans for people with dementia, we are discovering there are many benefits of art therapy for dementia, including, but not limited to:

Personal Expression

It is not uncommon for those who need dementia care to become nonverbal, which is why art and the creative process can be such an important resource in helping patients and their caregivers maintain a line of communication. Art therapy gives people with dementia an opportunity to express what they may not be able to find words to say. In those who are able to speak, art therapy may encourage engagement and conversation.

Mental Stimulation and Preservation of Memories

When people with dementia engage in the creative process, it stimulates the senses. When combined with activities that encourage reminiscence, the experience can trigger dormant memories. They may be reminded of a favorite painting that used to hang in their childhood home, a view of nature they enjoyed, a favorite pet, or any other experience they have had. Through art therapy, people with dementia discover a way to delve into the past and explore the memories they are still able to access.

Increased Morale and Self-Confidence

People with dementia also may be able to regain a sense of identity and control through creation. Being given opportunities to reminisce and create shows them that their lives have significance, and helps them form connections with those around them.

Art therapy also gives people with dementia a feeling of having autonomy and control over their environment, which results in additional benefits such as more sound sleep, decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increased moments of clarity. This can create a snowball effect that results in improved self-confidence and morale for both the patient and their family members whose spirits are lifted by even small breakthroughs.

Social Interaction

When an individual is nonverbal or has trouble communicating, they can become frustrated and find it difficult to form connections or interact with their caregivers and peers. This can result in social withdrawal. However, when people with dementia participate in art therapy, they are given a new way to communicate and share their experiences and emotions. This can help bridge the gap between patient and caregiver, and often restores the patient’s desire to communicate. Increased communication means increased interaction and the ability to form social bonds that reinforce a sense of self-worth.

Art therapy also provides a platform for interaction. When peers engage in creativity together and view each other’s art, they are naturally drawn to communicate with each other and begin to understand that they are not alone in their journeys.

Because of these benefits, art therapy is now recognized as an important part of dementia care and, today, caregivers can access a broad range of art therapy ideas for seniors that each provide specific advantages.

Does art therapy include other types of artistic expression?

Art therapy can include several forms of artistic expression ranging from visual art and writing to music and dance. While each activity offers benefits, research has shown that by combining activities — particularly those activities that may have personal significance to the patient — results may be increased. For example, an art therapist may play a piece of music that’s familiar to the patient and ask them to paint the way the music makes them feel or, since music is known to trigger long-term memories, they may paint a memory the music evokes.

Along the same lines, listening to familiar music can encourage nonverbal patients to sing songs they knew when they were young. Playing along with simple instruments can activate the part of the brain that controls balance and movement, as well as limbic and cognitive areas. It can also help strengthen hand and arm muscles and improve dexterity. Likewise, writing and dance — for those who retain some abilities in those areas — can stimulate corresponding areas of the brain.

Can art therapy cure dementia?

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But using art therapy activities chosen to correlate to an individual’s disease stage and abilities — as well as their personal preferences and inclinations — can create priceless moments of clarity, reduce many of the negative emotional effects of dementia, increase self-confidence, and provide a way for patients to experience a higher quality of life and more good days.

At Freedom Village, our person-centered memory care philosophy is grounded in the belief that the abilities that remain are far more important than those that are lost. Our programs focus on sustaining feelings of belonging, purpose and safety while seeking to preserve a sense of self.To learn more about memory care at Freedom Village in Holland, MI, simply call us at 616-200-7271.1As quoted in “The Beauty of Art Therapy,” AARP.org