Good art is more than just visually appealing. In the process of looking at it and thinking about it, it also stimulates the mind, and for people living with Alzheimer’s disease, that mental stimulation can be hugely beneficial. Since Alzheimer’s attacks the parts of the brain associated with memory, viewing art is believed to trigger certain memories and emotions that were previously thought to be dormant.
The Berman Museum of Art in Pennsylvania has started bringing select pieces of art to a local nursing home and showing the pieces to Alzheimer’s patients. The curators found that when the patients spent time looking at the art, they were better able to focus, recall memories, engage in discussions, and even express emotions like laughter—all of these responses were previously a rarity among the Alzheimer’s patients.
Alternatively, physically doing art projects with Alzheimer’s patients has been shown to have benefits as well. By building a conversation into the piece the patient is working on, it causes them to reminisce, which can in turn stimulate memories that they thought had been lost through the progression of the disease.
Many Alzheimer’s and dementia patients gradually lose their verbal communication skills as the disease progresses. But creating art can serve as a safe and comfortable outlet for them to express themselves, often causing them to show a sense of delight upon seeing the finished product. Keep in mind that even if memory loss persists in Alzheimer’s patients, their imagination still remains intact, regardless of the disease’s severity. A lot of Alzheimer’s patients also tend to withdraw into themselves as the disease progresses, but maintaining an art therapy program can help to bring them out of their shells.
Another common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is the gradual loss of fine motor skills. The simple act of holding a paintbrush and moving it across a canvas can have the same effect as physical rehabilitation to enhance fine motor skills.
As an added bonus, art therapy can be beneficial for family members of Alzheimer’s patients who are having trouble adapting to their loved one’s condition. In the same way that art serves as a means of expression for the patients, it also gives their family a way to communicate and connect back to them, especially when the Alzheimer’s patient is non-verbal.
Painting and sculpting are the two art projects that are most often recommended for Alzheimer’s patients. The project should be kept simple, but at the same time, not demeaning or childlike. Art projects that will evoke a memory are best for Alzheimer’s patients. For example, ask them to draw their childhood home or create a clay sculpture of their pet. The environment should be comfortable, too. Play music in the background (ask them to help pick something or play music that will be familiar to them) and avoid bright lights.
Remember to be positive and patient—don’t rush them and avoid the urge to take over and do it for them. Also, try to engage them in conversation by asking about the artwork. Talking about it with the Alzheimer’s patient may just evoke more memories that have seemingly been lost. And be sure to display the art prominently, whether it’s in a common area or in your loved one’s room; constantly viewing it will continue to elicit those memories.
Chayka, K., “Why art is good for Alzheimer’s patients,” Salon web site, September 25, 2012; http://www.salon.com/2012/09/25/why_art_is_good_for_alzheimers_patients/.
“Education and Care,” Alzheimer’s Foundation of America web site; http://www.alzfdn.org/EducationandCare/art_therapy.html, last accessed January 28, 2014.
“Music, Art and Alzheimer’s,” Alzheimer’s Association web site; http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-music-art-therapy.asp, last accessed January 28, 2014.