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 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 this society's confidence in the positive affects that creative activity has for the person with dementia. The excerpt from the documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint (below) demonstrates this affect; to actualy see otherwise despondent people come to life, become active and social and verbal, is nothing short of amazing. Please take 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
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 progressive decline of cognitive skills, memory loss, and withdrawal?
It is increasingly evident that initiatives that help people with Alzheimer's to get involved in art and other creative activity can 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

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that effects the brain in a predictable way. It begins in the hypothalamus, 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, then to the logic center where problem solving and planning are controlled. Emotions and creativity remain viable for a much longer time. (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

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.

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 Yellow Flower Floating in a Pond - A painting by a participant in the Memories in the Making programwho 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 a word we need to relate a thought is "on the tip of my toungue". 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 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 of people dressed in fancy clothes. Holly got out some crayons and asked her if she would like to color. It was always a challenge to get Bernice to do anything like this — she didn't 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 crayon 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 choosing the color for each area and Holly filling 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!

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's - Bernice Makes a Jack-o-Lantern.

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.

It is also important to remember that art in art therapy is a creative process, not a product. If the person enjoys doing it it makes no difference what it looks like when it's done.

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's

I Remember Better When I Paint

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's--I Remember Better When I Paint

The full DVD version of I Remember Better When I Paint is available in our store. This documentary is not only a good introduction to art therapy for people with Alzheimer's disease, but contains a wealth of information about the disease.


A Fine Art Program

Memories In The Making

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's--Memories in the Making

Memories In The Making is an art program designed for people with Alzheimer's disease. The program was created by the Orange County Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. This book will provide the information needed to facilitate small and medium sized groups, as well as to work with an individual at home.


A Starter Art Kit

Watercolor Art Kit

Art therapy for Alzheimer's disease - Watercolor kit

This starter kit, available in our store, contains 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 supply box.