Art Therapy Can Improve Quality of Life for Alzheimer's Patients

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People often say that art “speaks” to them. When words and thoughts fail, as in the case of Alzheimer’s dementia, the symbolic language of art can tell a story, express an emotion or recreate a memory that may otherwise be left untold.

The Memories in the Making Art Program began in 1988 in Orange County, California, when Selly Jenny, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, explored the use of an art program to identify how much dementia patients could reveal about themselves through the medium of art. The program is now service of the Alzheimer’s Association, and has expanded to over 26 chapters across the nation.

While Alzheimer’s and dementia damage the portions of the brain that have to do with memory and planning complex tasks, the portions that is involved in emotion and in aesthetic appreciation remain intact for much longer.

Patients with the disease have difficulty with attention and concentration, but experts say that art therapy has provided an extraordinary outlet. Therapists have witnessed an increase in freedom and spontaneity, calming of agitation, relief of isolation, and improved communication through art sessions. Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging at George Washington University, has studied the effect of art on people with Alzheimer’s. “Art is a wonderful activity that taps into imagination. Even with the loss of memory, the capacity for imagination still has its place.”

There is research that suggests that art helps Alzheimer’s patients. In a small study, weekly sessions of art therapy helped patients focus their attention for up to 30 to 45 minutes, and the completion of the project brought pleasure and satisfaction. "It is an opportunity to express themselves even after some of their standard human communications abilities of expression have gone,'' said Peter Reed, director of care services for the Alzheimer's Association.

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Art therapy can also help with the depression that comes along with the disease. A 1999 study at Brighton University found that Alzheimer’s sufferers who took part in art therapy showed a significant improvement to their symptoms after a ten-week course.

In addition to memory loss, the disease can affect muscle memory and coordination. Art therapy can help patients regain some function because it actively engages both hemispheres of the brain. For those who have problems carrying out movements, facilitators will use a hand-over-hand technique, which guides the artist so he or she can do it on their own.

Even just viewing art can have a therapeutic effect on Alzheimer’s patients. Patients with dementia often develop what doctors call the “four A’s” – anxiety, aggression, agitation, and apathy. The four A’s tend to fade in front of artwork, and have a calming effect. “Emotional memory” may come alive, and the patient begins to relate to people and places in their past.

Art therapy may also provide benefits to the difficult task of caring for a patient with Alzheimer’s Disease. Art allows the patient to connect with others around them non-verbally, communicating in a way that can express thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The therapy may promote relaxation and decrease disruptive behavior. And most of all, art therapy can bring a caregiver closer to their loved one.

The paintings and drawings of Alzheimer's patients sell at auctions led by Memories in the Making at exhibits throughout the country, helping fund efforts to fight the disease.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips on how caregivers can utilize art therapy at home:
• Make an art project part of your regular routine. Don’t worry about the result; just let the person with Alzheimer’s enjoy the process.
• Provide safe and non-toxic materials. Watercolors are a good choice for painting; crayons and coloring books for adults work well; and sculpting with clay is also a good option for people with Alzheimer's.
• Establish friendships. You might consider enrolling your loved one in an art class with other people who have Alzheimer’s disease. This will help your loved one to get involved socially with others and can give you a much-needed break. Many Alzheimer’s adult day care centers have art therapy programs.
• Go to a museum. Seeing art is also a valuable part of this form of therapy and it gives you and your loved one the opportunity to share an activity together, get out of the house, and get some exercise.
• Scrapbooking. Making a scrapbook is an increasingly popular activity that both caregivers and persons with Alzheimer’s disease can do together. Picking out colorful backgrounds and placing favorite photographs into an album can wake up old memories and stimulate a sense of togetherness and shared happiness.

To get the most out of art therapy, "it is most important that the caretaker set aside time to sit right next to the person and help them concentrate on the task. And above all, encourage, encourage, encourage. There is no right and no wrong. Let them know that whatever they put on the page will be respected."

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