Art Therapy: How Creativity Helps Soothe Dementia's Difficult Behaviors

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Marilyn Lorey recalls the wife of an Alzheimer's patient who cried after looking at what her husband was painting. When the art facilitator approached her, she explained that her husband, who was noncommunicative, had a passion throughout his adult life for tropical fish. And that's what she saw him painting. Lorey says this simple act was proof to the woman that her husband was continuing to function cognitively. That's amazingly important for caregivers, to know that their loved ones are "still here," Lorey says.

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Lorey runs an art program spearheaded by the Orange County chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Called Memories in the Making, it's designed to help those with dementia communicate. After 6 hours of training, caregivers can offer it in residential care, day facilities, assisted living, and even in private homes. It's now in roughly 26 states and 6 countries.

Unleashing the Creative Processes in the Aging

Memories in the Making is part of a fast-growing trend: The use of art and music to unleash the creative processes in the aging. While there are no official statistics on how many such programs exist, they're becoming widely used in eldercare, especially for those with dementia, says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer's Association. "We know that both art and music are very powerful ways of connecting with people with dementia diseases like Alzheimer's. We've seen it work in ways that seem almost miraculous at the time." She says art and music therapy generally lead to patients being happier and more engaged.

Combating Dementia's Challenging Behaviors With Art

Art and music can resonate with those experiencing memory loss, since research demonstrates that the area of the brain affecting creativity is the last to go. This means that even if a patient stops verbalizing, he or she can still communicate through these creative outlets, often remembering every lyric of a song. Renee L. Beard, an associate professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, who has researched this area, says that although large-scale, scientifically rigorous studies on the upsides of these types of therapies for dementia patients are lacking, "there are demonstrable benefits in terms of reducing challenging behaviors, such as agitation and depression," that are well documented.

Music & Memory: Meet Henry
The acceptance of music therapy can be seen through the success of Music & Memory, which provides a training program to promote the use of personalized music and iPod shuffles in eldercare facilities. The nonprofit program, which launched in 2010, is now being implemented at 485 facilities in 42 states and 8 countries and will eventually be in 207 nursing homes in the state of Wisconsin alone. The city of Toronto will provide a total of 10,000 iPods for the program. A video called Henry features a once-noncommunicative dementia patient who started talking after being given a Music & Memory iPod. Music & Memory was the inspiration for Alive Inside, a documentary being released in July. Dan Cohen, Music & Memory's executive director, says his program allows for a "personal jukebox" in institutions not known for individualized experiences. It's effective in making patients happier and calming them down, providing a substitute for damaging antipsychotic drugs, he says, adding that this has led to a significant reduction in caregiver stress.

Singing With a Stroke Victim: Meet Miriam
Miriam Zucker, a geriatric care manager in New Rochelle, New York, turned to music to reach one of her patients who had dementia and then became blind after having a stroke. She compiled a repertoire of songs from the woman's youth, such as "Bicycle Built for Two" and "Take Me out to the Ball Game." Now they spend their sessions together singing, and the patient also sings with her caregivers. Singing "Home, Home on the Range" caused her to reminisce about spending summers by the seaside, Zucker says. Music redirects her, so instead of thinking everything is black and she can't see, "she is now singing a whole group of songs she loves." It also allows adult children who have seen their parents robbed of their memory the ability to experience special moments when they can sing together, she adds.

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Stimulating Fine Motor Skills With Song: Meet Karen
When someone has been hospitalized or has severe Alzheimer's or a stroke, "music can get into the body through vibrations," says Karen Nisenson, founding and clinical director of Arts for Healing in New Canaan, Connecticut, a creative arts and therapy center for children, adults, and the elderly. She says that music triggers speech and language in elderly patients, stimulates the memory, and even helps with fine motor skills. Keyboard exercises help heal the effects of a stroke on the hands, while singing helps with speech and self-awareness. Alzheimer's patients who sing "feel their inner selves again." Even those who have limited mobility can feel the beat or tap a toe in time with the music, "and you know they're dancing inside." Nisenson says the field of arts therapy is growing rapidly, and as more research comes out on music and the brain, there will be even more awareness.

How Music Helps in Senior Care

Music therapy can also be incorporated into hospice care. Joy Berger, a board-certified chaplain and music therapist in Louisville, Kentucky, says it can provide spiritual support and tranquility in the midst of chaos, especially during the patient's final days.
Erin Partridge, who works as an art therapist at Salem Lutheran Home, a continuing care retirement community in Oakland, California, says that art helps patients connect with their memories. A portrait of a horse may indicate they rode horses many years ago, for example. Many who have lost independence are able to regain it in the art room, where they're engaged on a different level, she says.

Dementia Caregiving and Art as an Outlet

Gay Hanna, executive director for the National Center for Creative Aging, says art therapy programs are on the rise; 43 percent of all museums have programs to support caregivers and those they're caring for who have suffered memory loss. "It gives them a time and space where each of them seems like they used to be," she says. She says research shows that loved ones who were irritable and frustrated develop a sense of calm through art. The Detroit Institute of Arts launched a program in April 2013 called Minds on Art. Dementia patients and their caregivers are given a presentation by a docent, followed by participation in an art activity in the museum's studio. It's meant to be a social outlet for caregivers and to get dementia patients socially and cognitively stimulated and make art more available to them, says Katherine Hamaoui, the Minds on Art coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association, which partners on the project.

The Alzheimer Association's Ruth Drew says that although a trained professional is better skilled at using art and music in a therapeutic way, any caregiver can try it. For music therapy to work most effectively, the caregiver needs to get to know the patient's preferences. If he's a Frank Sinatra fan, that should be on the playlist. But if the music choice seems to annoy him, it's best to pick another tune. Berger says that music can be disturbing if it stirs unpleasant memories or sounds unfamiliar or disruptive to the person. And it's best not to impose one's own music onto someone else. Music is simply the tool, she says. "It's more about the person, what they need and how you can connect to them."

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for over two dozen national publications. See full bio