Art for Alzheimer's

By Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer

Loved ones with dementia or Alzheimer's may be struggling from the four "A's" of the disease -anxiety, agitation, aggression and apathy.  Another "A" is a proven way to lessen the other symptoms, while providing a sense of peace and familiarity for loved ones. That is "Art."

Many museums and other art-based facilities nationwide are recognizing the importance of what they can offer to the growing memory loss and Alzheimer's-stricken population. For caregivers, this is a welcomed and enriching way to improve their loved one's quality of life. Medical care is essential, but many caregivers struggle with finding ways to give care in a more meaningful manner.

Communication through Art

Caregivers know that when dementia or Alzheimer's takes away a person's ability to communicate clearly, or at all, it's frustrating for a loved one. Art has been found to give back the ability of self-expression to these people, and a sense of connection with others.

Art, whether through paintings, dance, music, folk art, or relics of an era gone by, is a way to bridge a loved one's personality and life experiences with their present-day lives. This is especially important in those with memory loss. As with any other person, people with dementia or Alzheimer's know what they like, and are able to express that consistently, even through non-verbal cues.

Alzheimer's and dementia damage the portions of the brain that have to do with memory and planning complex tasks, while the areas involved in emotion and aesthetic appreciation are functional for much longer.  Experts say that looking at paintings and other art mediums activate those preserved systems and stimulate the brain. Research shows that participating in art-focused programs helps relieve symptoms of depression, improve cognition and also increase social skills.

Many skilled care and assisted living facilities are tapping into this knowledge to reach their population in a more engaging manner. Old photographs, even if not of personal acquaintances or places, are a way to prompt memory and discussion. Many people will recognize a farm, and whether it's their own or not, have stories to go with that picture.

Group-living homes are found decorated with corporate prints, more suited to a hotel or office. Loved ones will be more appreciative of art that speaks to them. The same can be said if a loved one lives with a caregiver. Taking the time to make a home engaging and surrounded by art which strikes memories is a benefit for all.

Museums Making a Difference

In addition to art experiences at home, museums nationwide are beginning to recognize the ability they have to give loved ones with memory loss a place to regain a piece of their formal selves.

New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Hearthstone Alzheimer's Family Foundation have created "Meet Me at MoMA", for both loved ones and caregivers. It is tailored to the memory impaired and available once a month, during a time in which the museum closes. This helps eliminate the anxiety many loved ones feel in crowds, and allows for a much more enriching experience.

The New York University School of Medicine has evaluated the program, and found that effects were positive. Caregivers report fewer problems during the week following the visit to the museum. Loved ones show better moods and self-esteem, while caregivers also feel an increase in support socially.

Many museums in the New York area offer such programs, including the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Modern Museum of Modern Art, among others.

In the Midwest, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosts "Contemporary Journeys." This tour and art-marking program is available in two ways:  groups can schedule a tour or art lab in advance, or individuals can register for regularly scheduled morning programs.

Wisconsin's Milwaukee Public Museum is one of ten museums in that state which were awarded funding to create programming for beginning to mid-stage Alzheimer's patients and those suffering with other forms of dementia. In Milwaukee, SPARK! features interactive exhibit experiences, through which specially trained staff help with discussions, object handling and other multi-sensory activities.

Another such endeavor is the "Connections Program" at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware. This group uses old costumes from a variety of eras to spark memory and engagement from loved ones with memory loss.

Instead of the traditional lecture programs, these programs are inquiry-based and do not require any prior art knowledge.  When leading tours, the specially trained guides at these facilities will engage everyone by asking questions such as: "What do you see, and what do you think of the colors?" instead of, "Who knows who Picasso is?"

A lecturer at the MoMA program says that such experiences offer loved ones, and caregivers:

  • an opportunity for personal growth,

  • idea exchange without needing to rely on short-term memory,

  • opportunity to access long-term memories,

  • insight into a loved one's ideas and interests,

  • means to make connection between experiences and the world

  • social setting, and

  • respite, both physically and psychologically.

The Alzheimer's Association fully endorses these programs and lists many of them on its Web site, The Alzheimer's Reading Room also lists many of the museums, including those in Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, California, and Illinois. Caregivers can see for more information, or contact the local branch of the Alzheimer's Association for local options.

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