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Therapies for Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerFebruary 3, 2016

With instances of dementia and Alzheimer’s on the rise, so is the research being conducted into treatment methods. For people with the disease and their families, sorting through the available information on the disease can be overwhelming. Some alternatives like doll therapy are controversial and other treatments like aromatherapy and light therapy can help those with the disease sleep better, but the reasons why are not fully understood.

There are, however, three alternative treatments which have positive results in the lives of individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Learn more about art therapy, music therapy and pet therapy.

Therapies for Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease

Art Therapy

Art is being used to help those with dementia and Alzheimer’s find a calming way to communicate and express their emotions, feelings and thoughts. Author Mark Huntsman spoke to Dr. Daniel Potts, whose father Lester became a renowned watercolor artist after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

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As a rural saw miller, Lester Potts had not shown any artistic talent prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s. However, Dr. Potts found that his father’s attention and concentration improved while participating in art therapy. This is why he founded Cognitive Dynamics, a company which brings art therapy to those with dementia. “Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process, and individuals can express themselves through the art,” Dr. Potts says. “Patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over.”

Art therapy is effective in treating dementia and Alzheimer’s because, like music, it stimulates individuals on a number of levels. “We recognize now that [art therapy] engages the individual as a whole, and that stimulation takes place at neurological, cognitive, sensory, emotional and relational levels,” says the Alzheimer Society of Montreal. Some of the benefits of art therapy include:

  • Improvement in participants feelings of mood and well being, and a decrease in their levels of anxiety
  • The opportunity to have positive emotions
  • The chance to validate one’s personal experience
  • Social recognition: All human beings need to define themselves in relation to others in a climate of respect and trust

You can learn more about art therapy here:

Music Therapy

How does a music therapist battle dementia? According to Today’s Geriatric Medicine, John Carpente, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York and a licensed, board-certified music therapist, uses music to improve the overall mental and physical well being of people with dementia through:

  • Memory recall
  • Positive changes in moods and emotional states
  • A sense of control over life
  • Non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort
  • Stimulation that promotes interest even when other approaches are ineffective
  • Structure that promotes rhythmic and continuous movement or vocal fluency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation
  • Opportunities to interact socially with others

Why is music such an effective tool to treat this disease? Musical aptitude and appreciation are often two of the last remaining abilities for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) this is because “rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.” For this reason music is an effective way to communicate with people who are in the late stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Music can also improve cognitive ability. Neurologist Oliver Sacks explains that pairing music with everyday activities allows individuals to recall the memory of the activity, which can improve cognitive ability over time. The AFA says that for this purpose “unfamiliar music can be beneficial because it carries no memories or emotions. This may be the best choice when developing new responses like physical relaxation designed to manage stress and enhance sleep.” The AFA also points out that music from the person’s young adult years (when they were 18-25 years old) is most likely to elicit strong responses and opportunity for engagement while individuals with late-stage dementia may respond better to music from their childhood, in the language they learned the songs.

According to Alzheimer’s.net, there are a number of reasons music therapy is so effective:

  • A recent study proves that music boosts brain activity
  • Music evokes emotion which can help an individual recall a memory
  • Music connects through emotion and physical closeness (dancing)
  • Music (particularly singing) is engaging
  • Music can alter moods, manage stress and creative positive interactions.

Learn more about music therapy here:

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy (also known as animal therapy) trains dogs, cats and other animals as companions for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that many people with dementia recognize animals as friendly and non-threatening and as a result display more interactive behaviors to animals than to other people.

Assistance dogs are now being trained to help compensate for some of the associated dangers of memory loss in dementia and Alzheimer’s. In addition to providing companionship and love, these highly trained dogs can bring the individual with dementia or Alzheimer’s back home if they forget where home is and can track them by scent if for some reason the person wanders away.

Additional benefits of pet therapy include:

  • Reduced agitation
  • Increased pleasure
  • An increased amount of physical activity an individual participates in (if they are able to take the animal on a short walk or even groom them)
  • Increased appetite, as studies show that those with dementia eat more following the visit of a therapy animal
  • Lower blood pressure

Learn more about pet therapy:

Which therapy has proven most effective to you or your loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
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