Monday, March 15, 2010

Art Therapy for Alzheimer's

People often say that art “speaks” to them. When words and thoughts fail, as in the case of Alzheimer’s dementia, the symbolic language of art can tell a story, express an emotion or recreate a memory that may otherwise be left untold.

The Memories in the Making Art Program began in 1988 in Orange County, California, when Selly Jenny, whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, explored the use of an art program to identify how much dementia patients could reveal about themselves through the medium of art. The program is now service of the Alzheimer’s Association, and has expanded to over 26 chapters across the nation.

While Alzheimer’s and dementia damage the portions of the brain that have to do with memory and planning complex tasks, the portions that is involved in emotion and in aesthetic appreciation remain intact for much longer.

Patients with the disease have difficulty with attention and concentration, but experts say that art therapy has provided an extraordinary outlet. Therapists have witnessed an increase in freedom and spontaneity, calming of agitation, relief of isolation, and improved communication through art sessions. Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging at George Washington University, has studied the effect of art on people with Alzheimer’s. “Art is a wonderful activity that taps into imagination. Even with the loss of memory, the capacity for imagination still has its place.”

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There is research that suggests that art helps Alzheimer’s patients. In a small study, weekly sessions of art therapy helped patients focus their attention for up to 30 to 45 minutes, and the completion of the project brought pleasure and satisfaction. "It is an opportunity to express themselves even after some of their standard human communications abilities of expression have gone,'' said Peter Reed, director of care services for the Alzheimer's Association.

Art therapy can also help with the depression that comes along with the disease. A 1999 study at Brighton University found that Alzheimer’s sufferers who took part in art therapy showed a significant improvement to their symptoms after a ten-week course.

In addition to memory loss, the disease can affect muscle memory and coordination. Art therapy can help patients regain some function because it actively engages both hemispheres of the brain. For those who have problems carrying out movements, facilitators will use a hand-over-hand technique, which guides the artist so he or she can do it on their own.

Art therapy might be particularly beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s disease because though they gradually lose the ability to express themselves with words, other parts of their brain that deal with colors and composition can still be used and developed. Even people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease can continue to create art.

Just viewing art can have a therapeutic effect on Alzheimer’s patients as well. Patients with dementia often develop what doctors call the “four A’s” – anxiety, aggression, agitation, and apathy. The four A’s tend to fade in front of artwork, and have a calming effect. “Emotional memory” may come alive, and the patient begins to relate to people and places in their past.

Well-known Woodland Hills physician, Dr. Arnold Bresky, calling himself a “preventive gerontologist” has been successfully utilizing art therapy for patients that have Alzheimer’s and dementia. He claims he has achieved a 70% success rate with in improving his patient’s memories. Bresky assures that helping them to paint and draw reduces their memory loss.

Dr. Bresky calls his program a “Brain Tune Up” and says it’s a multi-disciplinary approach that also implements music. Bresky states that his art therapy program helps people with Alzheimer’s and dementia exercise their brains.

“The brain works through numbers and patterns,” Bresky says. “The numbers are on the left side of your brain, the patterns are on the right side. What I’m doing is connecting the two sides.”

“And we’re getting the brain to grow new cells. It’s called `brain plasticity.’ The brain changes physically to the environment.”

How Does Art Therapy Help Someone with Alzheimer’s?

A number of benefits are associated with art therapy. These include:
  • New way to communicate. Art therapy allows people with Alzheimer’s disease to connect with others in a different, non-verbal way. And it's a healthy method of helping your loved one to express thoughts and feelings and let go of some of the negative emotions they may be experiencing.
  • Improved concentration. Art therapy focuses on other possibly untapped areas of the brain and helps to improve concentration in people with Alzheimer's. Art therapy emphasizes abilities that are still available and can be developed rather than focusing on those that have been lost.
  • Better behavior. Both viewing and creating art can have a calming effect on someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Similar to the effects of listening to music or playing with pets, "art therapy may promote relaxation, improve mood, and decrease disruptive behavior," says Dr. Faison.
  • Closer relationships. Art therapy can bring a caregiver and a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease closer together. When other methods of contact become difficult, art therapy reminds the caregiver that the person with Alzheimer’s is still there.
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How Can Caregivers Utilize Art Therapy at Home?

Though this form of therapy is done by professional art therapists in facilities, caretakers at home can also use some of the methods. Art therapy may provide significant benefits to the difficult task of caring for a patient with Alzheimer’s Disease. Art allows the patient to connect with others around them non-verbally, communicating in a way that can express thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The therapy may promote relaxation and decrease disruptive behavior. And most of all, art therapy can bring a caregiver closer to their loved one.

Here are some ways that you can incorporate the fundamentals of art therapy into your home-care regimen:
  • Make an art project part of your regular routine. Don’t worry about the result; just let the person with Alzheimer’s enjoy the process.
  • Provide safe and non-toxic materials. Watercolors are a good choice for painting; crayons and coloring books for adults work well; and sculpting with clay is also a good option for people with Alzheimer's.
  • Establish friendships. You might consider enrolling your loved one in an art class with other people who have Alzheimer’s disease. This will help your loved one to get involved socially with others and can give you a much-needed break. Many Alzheimer’s adult day care centers have art therapy programs.
  • Go to a museum. Seeing art is also a valuable part of this form of therapy and it gives you and your loved one the opportunity to share an activity together, get out of the house, and get some exercise.
  • Scrapbooking. Making a scrapbook is an increasingly popular activity that both caregivers and persons with Alzheimer’s disease can do together. Picking out colorful backgrounds and placing favorite photographs into an album can wake up old memories and stimulate a sense of togetherness and shared happiness.
Review the video trailer to documentary "I Remember Better When I Paint", narrated by Oscar-winning actress Olivia de Havilland (of Gone with the Wind), and features a stirring interview with Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of acclaimed American actress, and Alzheimer's sufferer, Rita Hayworth, who took up painting while struggling with the disease and produced beautiful works of art also featured in the film. The documentary deals with common myth about Alzheimer's that it is a veritable death sentence. That once diagnosed, a person will ultimately deteriorate into an unrecognizable shell of his/her former self. But as the filmmakers demonstrate, this need not be the case. The creative arts can reunite even a late stage Alzheimer's sufferer with parts of his/her former self. These non-medicinal options render success rates comparable to their pharmaceutical counter-parts. Indeed, art therapy can provide outlets of expression for an Alzheimer's sufferer where conventional means of expression prove insufficient.

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