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Picture It: How Art Helps Dementia Patients

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererAugust 5, 2013

We know art stimulates the senses. And it also gives us something to talk about. Art therapy has those same effects on dementia patients, leading different museums across the country to develop programs aimed at people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Art Therapy Helping Dementia ResidentsStudies show that art therapy can enhance communication, brain function and social interaction for dementia patients. In fact, visual art can trigger dormant memories and emotions, inspiring conversations among these patients who normally struggle to express themselves. What’s more, when dementia patients create the art themselves, that activity stimulates the whole brain. Instead of just responding to images, patients must plan, remember, create patterns and use motor skills.

Because of art’s effects on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, several museums have initiated programs aimed at older adults suffering from these conditions. Here are just a few examples.

Museum of Modern Art’s Alzheimer’s Project

Painting chosen to be a part of the Alzheimer’s Program. Umberto Boccioni (Italian, 1882—1916). The City Rises. 1910. Oil on canvas, Guggenheim Fund

In 2006, the Museum of Modern Art developed an Alzheimer’s Project based on research it conducted with Artists for Alzheimer’s (sponsored by the Hearthstone Foundation). The project includes:

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  • Educational programming offered at the museum, senior centers and assisted living facilities
  • An annual Grandparents’ Day
  • Teleconference courses for homebound seniors

Curators carefully select works and display art so as to create a positive and comfortable experience for dementia patients. And tour guides ask patients questions designed to start a conversation. These conversations not only activate areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia, but they also create a sense of community among the patients.

Berman Museum of Art Brings Art to Alzheimer’s Patients

Artist’s interpretation of how Van Gogh’s Starry Night helps dementia sufferers. Image courtesy of Tony Auth: WHYY

Last year, curators at the Berman Museum of Art in Pennsylvania took selections from particular collections to a group of Alzheimer’s patients at a local nursing facility. The goal? To test these selections for a museum-based exhibit intended for people with special needs. “We’re focused on having an exchange, having their [the Alzheimer’s patients] voices heard and validated,” says Susan Shifrin, the Berman Museum’s director of education.

Patients started talking about the art and interacting with each other in ways that were out of the ordinary. And the sense of having their voices heard and validated helped the conversations go on. It’s a different way for art historians to use their skills, the museum’s curator asserts. But it’s one of the most meaningful things they can do.

Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s Day Out for Dementia Patients

The Oklahoma City Museum of Art recently offered a day out for dementia patients, giving them and their caregivers exclusive access to the museum on a day when it was normally closed. Stimulating the patients brains and encouraging conversation were key goals for the day. However, another was to promote social interaction–among patients and caregivers.

At-home caregivers, particularly a spouse or other relative, can experience isolation and loneliness much like dementia patients themselves. Having a chance to communicate about a topic can alleviate those feelings of loneliness and improve self-esteem. Plus, the art provides a topic the caregivers and patients can share, ideally inspiring more conversations at home.

Dementia Patients Create Their Own Works

To round out the benefits of art therapy, patients aren’t just viewing paintings, sculptures or other forms, they’re creating their own art too.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America affirms that art making, in a community setting or at home, can “excite the imagination of people with dementia.” Not to mention, creating art can help a patient recover motor skills similar to how they would in rehabilitation. “People still have imaginations intact even at the very, very end of their progressive disease,” explains Judy Holstein, director of Chicago’s CJE Senior Life Day Service. “Art therapy gives patents a way to express that resilient spirit.”

Other advantages to art making for dementia patients are that it gives patients an outlet for expression and promotes relaxation and improved mood. Another benefit, though, is that art provides interaction among young and old family members who can share in the activity. Picture a grandchild finally having the chance to communicate with a grandparent who’d all but lost all forms of self-expression. The image is beautiful.

Have you seen art therapy at work? Please share your insights and opinions below.

Watch this video for more information about art therapy for dementia patients:

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*Photo courtesy of Human Emotions: Therapy Sessions, Mystique, 2012.

Jennifer Wegerer
Jennifer Wegerer
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