Q. During the week, I drop my husband off at an
adult day care center and they offer regular art classes
and art therapy groups. What are the differences between
regular art classes and art therapy groups for people
with cognitive impairments?
A. Regular art classes focus on the individual’s
interaction with the art media and the finished art
product. Art therapy groups are aimed to activate the
language center of the brain. The implementation of
using art therapeutically includes several goals which
include facilitating language expression, memory
retrieval and socialization.
Q. My father is unable to initiate conversation
anymore, and his ability to verbalize has declined
dramatically during the past year. I can tell this
really bothers him a lot. Is there a way I can use art
therapeutically to facilitate communicate between us?
A. Yes, definitely! What I do to help facilitate
language expression is to first see there are no other
distractions in the room. I provide a quiet environment
and begin by having several pre-cut images from
magazines that depict several things such as food,
animals, sports, facial expressions, objects, etc. for
the person to view. I tell the individual I’m going to
show them pictures and I ask them to choose images that
they like. I usually have the person choose no more than
four. I have a large piece of paper and ask them where
on the paper they would like the pictures glued. I
proceed by asking them what it is about the images they
like, or what is happening in the picture. Through this
activity, conversations surface. At this point, I
usually try to guess the words they may be trying to
I worked with a man that chose an image of a basketball
player trying to get a basketball into a hoop. When I
asked the man about the picture, he said the picture was
about the basketball player’s ‘worries’ of not being
able to get the ball into the hoop. At this point, I
began to ask him about his ‘worries’ about not doing
things. Apparently this hit home because he shared his
concerns about not being able to do the things he use to
do, such as being able to express himself verbally and
being independent. The man felt relieved being able to
share what was enormously difficult to express.
How does art therapy work for individuals
A. Art therapy works by actively engaging both
sides of the brain. The brain has two hemispheres which
work in conjunction: left and right. The right side
receives information while the left side finds the words
to describe the sensory information. Because there are
vascular changes in persons with dementia, language
areas become less functional. The therapeutic use of art
accesses the language areas (the left side) by prompting
the other side (right side) of the brain. Older
individuals that have lost the ability to communicate
feel isolated and self-conscious. Using art
therapeutically provides a non-threatening activity
which makes it easier for individuals to access and
What is art therapy and what are the
educational requirements to become an art therapist?
A. Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art,
within a professional relationship, by people who
experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and
by people who seek personal development. Art therapists
are professionals trained both in therapy and in art. In
the state of California, entry into the profession is at
the Master’s level. The American Art Therapy Association
sets the curriculum and educational standards to qualify
as an art therapist.
My husband has lost all ability to
communicate. are there any activities i can do to
communicate with him?
A. Yes, I recommend engaging in activities that
involve eye contact. Eye to eye contact is the most
direct way to communicate to your husband that he is not
alone and he is cared for. The eye ‘gaze’ goes back to
the way infants attach to their main caregivers, and the
same is true about the way adults attach to each other.
When I work in a group, I often use a beach ball and
roll it to three or four adults sitting at a table. All
the adults give and receive eye contact with each other,
and engage in physical activity that requires
coordination. I also will give the person a stuffed
animal or doll that has very wide eyes and a pleasant
smile to hold. Unless the adult objects, the eye to eye
contact has a calming effect. As a caregiver, when you
get tired, a doll or stuffed animal can serve as a
Q. As an art
therapist, what are your common goals when working
with people who have cognitive impairments?
A. Common goals are to maintain collateral brain
pathways and preserve what is currently working. Basic
brain pathways are set through the individual’s senses
(sight, smell, touch, and hearing). The senses in
general are set down early in life, and stay intact as a
person ages. My job as an art therapist is to find which
sense is operable and use it to stimulate the brain.
Because individuals think in ‘images’ (visually),
showing images helps prompt language, builds rapport and
fosters social interactions with others.
Q. Do you ever use
art to educate people about their dementia?
A. Yes, I do. Adults that are highly cognitive and
recently diagnosed are very interested in knowing about
what vascular changes are going on what can be done. I
usually draw a picture of the brain on a large piece of
paper and the changes taking place. I also make sure to
write out on the paper itself the importance of
maintaining brain health.
Q. What do you like
about working at an adult day care center?
A. I enjoy being with older people in general. Our
culture does not value, nor represent elders the way
they should. I enjoy the center where I work because
they provide art therapy and support groups for these
individuals and their caregivers.
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