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The Art of Alzheimer’s

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenApril 4, 2016

Art and music therapy have proven to be powerful tools for treating Alzheimer’s disease. More than giving people with Alzheimer’s something to look at, playing something soothing to listen to, or providing an exercise to keep them busy — these therapies can stimulate the brain, stir memories and give those with dementia a better quality of life.

Art and music are good for the mind and soul. Being creative stimulates the senses and makes people happy. The release of creativity not only wakes up dormant areas of the brain, but also engages us and gives us something to talk about, which is why art therapy and music therapy for dementia can be so helpful.

Art Therapy and Music Therapy: Completely Natural with No Side Effects

The best kind of therapy is natural therapy or treatments that don’t involve medication or surgery that produce positive results without side effects. Art and music therapies for dementia are a fun, unconventional type of therapy that stimulates the senses and creates engaging activities for those with the disease.

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Dr. Daniel C. Potts, founder of Cognitive Dynamics, a company that uses innovative therapy techniques such as art, drama and music, to help those with dementia, comments:

“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.”

Since creativity is good for the mind and triggers happiness, art and music therapy provides a positive outlet for expression that, interestingly, awakens parts of the brain not affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia. A Place for Mom expert and geriatric psychologist Dr. Melissa Henston discusses the power of these 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 helps 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.”

Through these artistic communications, people with dementia can make connections and communicate in a way that we may have thought were lost forever. Because of this, art and music therapy is a fast-growing trend that releases the creative processes in the elderly and can be therapeutic for individuals suffering from dementia — and for good reason!

Art Therapy

Art therapy provides an enriched environment that can stimulate the imagination of individuals with dementia. Drawing, painting and other forms of art therapy can help people with Alzheimer’s express themselves through color, images and lines. Expression through art is especially important as a person’s ability to communicate through words deteriorates as cognitive disease progresses. Art therapy can provide an alternative means of expression to help dementia sufferers recover the use of motor skills in the same manner as physical rehabilitation.

Here are a few ways that art therapy helps seniors find better quality of life:

1. Provide a Sense of Accomplishment — Having a project and spending quality time on art provides a sense of accomplishment for those suffering from dementia as they don’t often have this luxury in life anymore as caregivers do most things for them.

2. Build Conversation and Communication — Visual art can trigger dormant emotions and memories, inspiring conversations among those who normally struggle to express themselves.

3. Enable Self Expression — Creating art is a powerful and unique experience to produce creativity and a tangible piece of their own interpretation of whatever they are creating.

4. Stimulate the Brain — Art engages parts of the brain not affected by dementia to help those areas awaken, even if it’s just temporary.

5. Manage Stress — By shifting focus to something positive and engaging, seniors suffering from dementia are able to trigger the pleasure and happiness centers of the brain.

Music Therapy

One of the most effective alternative treatments offered today in memory care is music therapy. Music can aid in memory retrieval, as a result of the connection between the auditory cortex of the brain and the limbic system, which is where emotions are processed; and this helps to trigger long-term memories. Even in the late stages of the disease, parts of the brain like the hippocampus and limbic systems are still intact. But music therapy does much more for dementia sufferers.

Here are a few powerful ways that music therapy helps seniors with cognitive disorders:

6. Bring Back Memories — Music evokes emotion, even in those with the most advanced of Alzheimer’s, and this emotion can bring back feelings and memories. If music is paired with everyday activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to recall memories of the activity over time.

7. Promote Wellness — Music makes people happy. When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements. This is because music requires little to no mental processing, but rather ‘turns on’ the pleasure center of the brain that may be dormant.

8. Improve Communication — Memories brought on by music create a reason to talk and reminisce, bringing those with dementia closer to people.  Through music comes dance, and dancing can lead to closeness which brings positive communication and security.

9. Help Alleviate Pain — By shifting focus, music often brings positivity and distraction from pain. Dancing and reminiscing can trigger pleasure, which helps alleviate pain from other ailments.

10. Promote Physical Rehabilitation — Dancing, positivity and endorphins naturally released through music therapy promotes healthy movement and can lead to rehabilitation, if implemented in the right way.

The Positive Impact of Art Therapy and Music Therapy for Dementia

These reasons show that being in an ‘artful kind of mind’ has many benefits for Alzheimer’s. Art therapy and music therapy give back to those with the disease, in some part, what it has taken away by stimulating the senses and triggering dormant memories that encourage conversation and human connection.

Today there are many programs that promote and offer art therapy and music therapy for Alzheimer’s, such as the:

So don’t give up on your loved one. Play music and offer art to help engage them. After all, the arts are affordable, effortless and engaging, so why not try them?

Find out what your local community has to offer to help your loved one with a cognitive disease.

How has art or music therapy worked for your senior loved ones? Share your insights with us in the comments below.

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