Caring Currents

Need Air? Open a Window Into the Alzheimer's Soul

Close to Pablo Picasso
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Stories of how people with Alzheimer's spark to creative activities involving art, music, and literature are fascinating to hear "“ and even more so to witness. Better yet, arts activities make life less stressful for dementia caregivers, which is why I can't revisit this topic enough.

Some examples:

  • When my son played guitar for a group of residents in the dementia wing of a nursing home where his grandpa lived for rehab, one woman prone to violence and wandering restlessly planted herself in front of him to happily dance and dance.

  • A friend recently told me her mother, who has advanced Alzheimer's, mostly sits locked into her own silent world, until her daughter plays church hymns on the piano. Then Mom sings every word, clear as a bell.

  • Alzheimer's disease turned actress Rita Hayworth anxious, aggressive, and confused "“ except when she was painting flowers, a hobby she took up late, and with gusto.

  • A former teacher, new to a long-term dementia care facility, is restless and agitated until he's made the leader of a book group. Passing out books and reading aloud with other residents from large-type books becomes a daily focus and motivation.

Obviously nobody paints or plays music 24/7. And it would be hard for a dementia caregiver to organize artsy activities all day long. But don't be too quick to think it's not for you. You don't have to be a sophisticated arts therapist or spend a lot of energy to reap the benefits:

  1. Arts participation gives someone with dementia a sense of accomplishment and pleasure; the resulting positive emotions reverberate throughout your day.

  2. Finding the right "spark" gives you a go-to activity to help change mood in a pinch, when your loved one is upset or bored.

  3. Going out to, say, a concert or a museum in early- to mid-stage disease gets you both out of the house.

"Alzheimer's doesn't take away memory; your memories are all in there. The part of the brain that's damaged is the part that gives you access to memory. It's as if you put the memories in the glove compartment and you lost the key "“ and the art unlocked it," says John Zeisel, a sociologist who founded Artz for Alzheimer's, a very cool organization that sets up guided museum tours for people with Alzheimer's, among other programs. Zeisel is also the author of last year's I'm Still Here: A Breakthrough Approach to Understanding Someone Living With Alzheimer's.

Some ideas to get you started:

  • Don't assume the arts have no effect if your loved one was never "artsy." Music and painting reach many people with dementia, even the unlikeliest.

  • Experiment. Some people take to dance, others like to pluck a zither or work in fingerpaint. Rent musicals to watch. Visit a museum every Friday afternoon "“ it can be the same place, looking at the same art, every week; it's the routine and in-the-moment experience that helps.

  • Keep it simple. My Dad, a lifelong photographer, could no longer operate even the simplest camera, but he never lost his enjoyment of polka music. Paint-by-numbers? Maybe not. Watercolor? Who knew your mom was an Impressionist?

  • It's art therapy, not art class. As you look at paintings or art books, resist the urge to quiz about artists or famous works. Just talk about the colors, shapes, and emotions: "Do you like it? How about this one?"

More inspiration: Check out this video from a 2009 documentary called ["I Remember Better When I Paint"}( (the narrator? Olivia de Havilland!):

What creative pursuit helps your loved one with dementia feel confident or soothed, even briefly: Old radio programs? Scrapbooking? Collage? Dancing?

What works?