Art Therapy – Painting and Sketching Can Help Dementia Patients

Creativity can be very powerful, allowing individuals to express themselves on a more artistic level. For years, art has been used to help treat a wide range of patients, including those suffering from dementia. It has the ability to improve one’s quality of life while enhancing the creative mind.

Are you currently caring for a loved one with dementia? If so, have you introduced any artistic activities into their daily routine? Although the benefits are broad, patients have been shown to improve on a mental, physical, and emotional level — all without adverse effects.

Creative Expression May Be the Key to Communication

For those who care for a loved one with dementia, you know that some days are better than others. Although your loved one may seem lost and confused, they are still in there — their memories are just ‘locked’ away. As you’re aware, one of the first challenges during the progression of dementia is effective communication.

What may seem frustrating and exhausting to you, can be absolutely frightening for those individuals directly affected by their diminishing condition. Since they are not able to properly communicate, their thoughts and fears are often not shared. Luckily, art therapy may open a gateway, allowing these individuals to express themselves.

One key study, published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, focused on a sculptor known as Mary Hecht. Although she suffered from vascular dementia, a form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s (which results from reduced blood flow to the brain), she was able to draw detailed sketches from memory.

One of the study’s authors, a neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital Memory Clinic, stated that, “art opens the mind,” and in this case, Mary showed that artistic abilities are, in fact, preserved. Despite the fact that Mary showcased a significant loss in day-to-day memory functions, art was her gateway.

It was not as if Mary was in the earliest stages either — she was severely impaired by her dementia. Bound to a wheelchair, she could not complete some of the most basic memory tasks, yet she successfully drew detailed, free-hand portraits. Similar results have also been seen among those with Alzheimer’s and frontal temporal dementia.

How Does Art Help Dementia Patients?

We have come a long way, but there are still many aspects of dementia in which we do not fully understand. At this time, doctors and researchers are not exactly sure why creative expression remains intact, but one thing is for certain — art therapy can be extremely beneficial and rewarding for patients.

As patients bypass language barriers, they are able to express themselves through their artwork. Just like music, art appears to influence a number of neural regions and when art therapy is introduced, it’s as if patients can reroute communication pathways. In turn, they are able to once again, interact with the world around them.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can strip an individual of their identity and lust for life, but with art therapy, patients are able to achieve a unique sense of accomplishment — and that in itself, is extremely powerful. Of course, this therapy will not reverse the effects of one’s condition, but it can significantly improve quality of life.

As reported in one 2014 review, a total of 112 articles were analyzed based on creative art therapies. What they found, was that this form of therapy was effective when aiming to improve both emotional and behavioral challenges, but not cognitive decline. In many ways, this not only improves the lives of dementia patients, but also their caregivers.

While meeting at the University of Wisconsin in 2006, some of the leading American researchers involved in the field of dementia and creativity spoke about the power of art, writing, and music. While focusing specifically on creative expression and all stages of dementia, it was reported that the following outcomes are possible:

  • Reduced agitation
  • Increased positive emotional responses
  • Greater social interaction and level of engagement
  • Functional improvements
  • Potential weight gain
  • Increased mobility
  • Less stress (for both the patient and caregiver)
  • Increased food intake
  • Improvements in verbal fluency
  • Improved mood and attention

The Capacity to Be Creative

A patient’s ability to be creative may be either encouraged or hindered, depending on their environment. This has been of great importance to researchers, especially while focusing on individuals who are no longer able to live within their home. In order to foster creative behavior, a comfortable, stimulating environment will likely produce positive outcomes.

In terms of art therapy, a therapeutic, creative environment is needed. This form of therapy encourages patients to restore their sense of identity and self-worth, as they relax within a safe and supportive environment. If you would like to start an art project with your loved one, keep the following in mind:

  • When choosing an activity, encourage a project that is on an adult level. Avoid crafts or art projects that are child-like in nature, as this can be demeaning. ‘
  • As you support creativity, also encourage communication. Speak about the project and what you’re creating, as well as potential reminiscent aspects of the activity itself. There have been some incredible instances where patients are able to freely discuss a memory from their past based on an image they draw during art therapy.
  • Don’t be shy to get involved and help the patient begin. While painting, for instance, show them how to apply a few brush strokes to paper. Then, place the brush in their hand and mimic the same movement. The level of assistance required will depend on the individual patient.
  • Of course, use only safe materials, including non-sharp objects and non-toxic materials, as some patients may put art supplies in their mouth.
  • Provide plenty of time for creative expression and remember, they do not need to complete their art in one sitting. If they decide they no longer want to draw, take a break and try again later.

Art is a grear outlet for dementia patients, but so is music. To read more about the incredible ways in which music also influences dementia patients, please feel free to read a related article — Does Music Enhance Memory and Brain Activity?


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Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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