Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s


Why art therapy for Alzheimer’s? “A wealth of research has demonstrated that participation in creative activities promotes health and well being by stimulating curiosity and self-evaluation, by encouraging individuals to express themselves in meaningful ways, and by affirming their dignity and self-worth.” So sure are the authors of this quote in the power of art therapy that they created The Society for the Arts in Dementia Care, which “aims to disseminate knowledge and establish ties with dementia care organisations worldwide, thereby improving the quality of life for people with dementia.”

There is indeed a wealth of research, as well as anecdotal support for the confidence that the Society for the Arts has in the positive affects creative activity has for the person with dementia. An excerpt from the documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint demonstrates this affect; to see otherwise despondent people come to life, become active and social and verbal, is nothing short of amazing. Please take the time to view this three minute clip, or come back to it when you have time. It will convince you that an art program will benefit the individual with Alzheimer’s disease, possibly in a very big way.

I Remember Better When I Paint: The Benefits of Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

Why This Film?

No drugs yet exist that can effectively prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease. What recourse, then, for the millions of people who suffer from this terrible degenerative disease, which causes a progressive decline of cognitive skills, memory loss, and withdrawal?
It is becoming increasingly evident – initiatives that help people with Alzheimer’s get involved in art and other creative activity obtain surprising results. Scientists have discovered that Alzheimer’s disease normally spares, to a very large extent, the parts of the brain related to emotions, creativity and creative expression. Neurologists — including several who are interviewed in the documentary — recognize the benefits of non-pharmacological therapies. Nonetheless, only a very small percentage of nursing homes and care facilities are yet making effective use of these approaches, and the film urges that an extensive effort now be made to share these positive approaches and hopeful possibilities.

~ From I Remember Better When I Paint

Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that affects the brain in a predictable way. It begins in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for creating memories from experiences. From there it moves to the front of the brain where language is processed and the executive functions like decision making take place. From there it moves to the logic center where problem solving and planning are controlled. Emotions and creativity remain viable for a much longer time. (Read more about the process and progression of Alzheimer’s disease)

By stimulating these areas we can make connections in a way that we may have thought were lost forever. By allowing the individual with Alzheimer’s to communicate using emotional and creative centers of the brain, rather than logical and memory centers, it will become less obvious that he or she is even affected by the disease.

Two Ways to Enjoy Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s

We can create our own art or music or stories, or we can enjoy those things that others have created. Both activities can provide an enjoyable diversion for any of us, and both are therapeutic for the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

Strictly speaking, art therapy involves the creation of art, as seen in these various definitions:

  • National Institutes of Health: Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.
  • Art Therapy Credentials Board: Art therapy is a human service profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
  • American Medical Association and Health Professions Network: Art therapists use drawing, painting, and other art processes to assess and treat clients with emotional, cognitive, physical, and/or developmental needs and disorders.
  • American Art Therapy Association: Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.
Art Therapy for Alzheimer's | Lemon Yellow Flower Floating in a Pond

Lemon Yellow Flower Floating in a Pond
A painting done by a participant in a Memories in the Making program.

A common thread in the definitions above is the benefit that creating art has on the emotional and the physical well-being of the individual who is doing the creating. These definitions are written with a general public in mind, but art therapy affects an Alzheimer’s population in a similar way; that is, there are marked improvements to the emotional and physical well-being of the individual. We take a broader, what-works approach to art therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Enjoying art has similar emotional and physical affects and so we include that, not only as a viable form, but as a powerful form of art therapy for people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Creating Art as Therapy for Alzheimer’s

Painting and drawing, even sculpting, are common hobbies. All are excellent ways to relax, but creating art is more than just a recreational pastime. Art provides a way to reach inside ourselves, to put on paper or some other medium, a representation of thoughts and feelings that we may not be able to express in any other way. Sometimes words fail us.

Language is affected fairly early in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. If you provide care for a person who has Alzheimer’s you have probably, at one time or another, seen him (or her) struggle to find the words to say what he wants to say. The idea is there. He has the desire to communicate that idea to you. He just can’t get the word out. We have all at one time or another felt that the word we need to relate a thought is “on the tip of my tongue”. We just can’t get it out. Imagine this feeling magnified ten- or twenty-fold, and you will start to share the frustration of a person with Alzheimer’s.

Read more about creating art as an activity for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Enjoying Art as Therapy for Alzheimer’s

From an article by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian that appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of the New York Times:

On one recent Friday, Karen Bedrosian Richardson, 65, attended “Mindful Connections” with her 90-year-old mother, Isabel Bedrosian, who is in the late stages of dementia. “What I get out of it is the enjoyment of learning about a different culture,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said. “And the opportunity to use a vocabulary that during the day I don’t get to use.” In caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s, she said, “the conversation with that person tends to be repeating the same thing over and over.”

“She’s alert for longer periods during the day, her walking is better, her responsiveness to stimuli around her in the home is better. It’s as though she’s been energized,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said.

Karen and her mother were attending “Mindful Connections”, an art tour at the Ruben Museum of Art in New York. Mindful Connections is a program for people with dementia and their caregivers and is co-hosted by the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Art museums all over the country are instituting similar programs. The reason for this is clear, if you have watched the video clip above on this page, and becomes compelling once you see (or read about) the amazing transformations resulting from these programs.

Read more about enjoying art as an activity for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

For Bernice

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's | Bernice and her jack-o-lantern

Art therapy for Alzheimer’s can come in many forms. Here Bernice proudly displays her Jack-O-Lantern.

Art or creative therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease need not look the same as art (say, an art class) might look for someone else. Bernice had always been a creative lady and also a perfectionist. At one point when Bernice was in a memory care community, Holly brought an adult coloring book for her. It had pictures of people dressed in fancy clothes. Holly got out some markers and asked her if she would like to color. It was always a challenge to get Bernice to do anything like this — she did not want to risk making a mistake. Holly moved the coloring book aside for a while, and they talked.

Before long, Holly slid the book back in front of herself, picked up a marker and started coloring. Bernice was obviously interested. Holly asked, “What color do you think this should be?. She didn’t like to make mistakes, but Bernice was never shy about offering her opinion. They finished the page in this way; Bernice chose the color for each area and Holly filled it in. Choosing the colors was Bernice’s creative process, her art therapy. Bernice couldn’t have been more pleased with the finished picture if she had done it all herself!

As with everything else when working with persons with dementia, be prepared to modify the task or activity to satisfy the individual’s interests and abilities. It helps to know as much as possible about the person you are working with, but it also requires observation and experimentation. If something is not working, or not being accepted, try using it or doing it a little differently. Or put it away and try something else. Maybe this activity is for another day.

It is important to remember that in this context we use the word “art” as a verb; art is a creative process, not a product. If a person is enjoying her art experience, if it helps her to communicate what is inside of her, if she takes pride in what she is doing, it makes no difference what it looks like when it’s done.

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's | Watercolor Art Kit

Watercolor Art Kit

Painting is a very easy activity to do at home. It requires only a few supplies, and those supplies are generally inexpensive. Remember to begin a session with a little discussion about the painting process, and pick a subject to be painted. That subject could be a memory, or it might be a model to copy. The model might be a flower, a bowl of fruit, or a painting by Raphael. (A reproduction of a painting by Raphael works well too if you don’t happen to have an original.)
The Watercolor Art Kit pictured here and available in our store, contains everything you need to start your own program; a set of 18 vibrant watercolors, 7 quality brushes with comfort grip, colored pencils, pencil sharpener, 3 water bowls, a pad of watercolor paper (10 sheets – 9″x12″). And comes in it’s own storage box. This kit makes art therapy for Alzheimer’s easy for you! 

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About Author

Degrees in psychology and education as well as professional certifications in business administration and website development gave John the ideal credentials to co-found and develop an internet presence dedicated to helping caregivers provide exceptional care to those who are no longer able to care for themselves because of the impact of dementia. Now in it's sixth year, Best Alzheimer's Products has earned national and international recognition as a place to go for help and advice, with the goal of making life better for people living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

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