How Art Therapy Can Help Fight Dementia

Dementia is a syndrome that affects memory, behaviors, and one’s ability to perform day-to-day functions. While dementia is is typically expected in aging, young people can also be affected by it and there are also marked differences in the onset of dementia and other types of memory loss. The World Health Organization estimates that 47 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, with 9.9 million dementia diagnoses every year and Alzheimer’s disease being the root cause of about 60-70% of all dementia cases.

Paying close to attention to factors like diet and sleep patterns is paramount in caring for a loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia. However, with increased research and discussion on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia given the significant portion of the US population that is rapidly aging, new discoveries are constantly being made in the field of memory care. Art therapy in particular has been proven to help fight dementia and significantly improve quality of life for dementia patients. Whether your loved ones are aging in place or in a memory care facility, viewing and creating art is a highly engaging activity that can play a major role in managing dementia.
Here’s why art projects are an excellent idea in providing care to dementia sufferers, and how art can help stave off the effects of dementia.

Creating Art Puts Emphasis on the Process, Not the Result

There are various fun activities that are recommended for memory care such as working with modeling clay since this can help maintain hand strength and allows focus to be on the process, not the end result. This is particularly important for people with dementia since it is a cognitive syndrome that affects the ability to process thoughts. When there is less emphasis on the result, this not only makes for a more enjoyable activity but also lends  a sense of engagement that can prevent the agitation seen in dementia sufferers.

Art is Beneficial for Both Patients and Caregivers

People with dementia, as well as their caregivers, have been shown to benefit from art therapy. It allows both the person with dementia and their caregiver to creatively express themselves and also provides an outlet that offers a sense of accomplishment and purpose in recreating a memory or forming a new one. Caregivers can form a deeper bond by creating art with or alongside their loved ones or charges by helping out with creations or showing how to do them.
Caregivers who also enjoy arts and crafts have an opportunity to work on creative projects of their own that they otherwise may never get around to, providing an excellent opportunity for stress relief and self-expression.

Art Stimulates the Brain

Dementia disrupts the neuropathways that one’s brain has created over a lifetime of observations, experiences, and learning. Engaging in art helps stimulate brain activity that can help compensate for the short-term memory losses caused by dementia. Exposure to art, both viewing and creation, has been found to be a powerful way to enhance brainwaves particularly for people with early stage Alzheimer’s.
Even just viewing art in an exhibit or book can help rehabilitate visual-spatial abilities and form new neuropathways, but creating art creates even more brain stimulation. Better yet, taking action creatively such as putting a pencil to paper or dancing to music involves using the entire brain opposed to just a few neural pathways or regions, which helps with overall brain health.

Creativity Fosters a Healthy Limbic System

Doing artwork or engaging in art therapy helps increase dopamine production, which is a hormone that generates enduring feelings of happiness and increased self-worth. Creative environments such as galleries and art studios improve the dopamine pathways found the in the limbic system which makes for a longer-lasting feeling of self-actualization. Joining an art group that meets regularly provides both the benefits of a new environment and the opportunity for social interactions with other seniors.
If traveling to a new environment is difficult, there are many ways to turn a room in your home into a creative safe space can help foster brain activity.

Art Therapy Offers Validation and a Sense of Self to Dementia Patients

It’s possible that a person with dementia or moderate cognitive impairments has talents that were never uncovered earlier in life. When art therapy is combined with reminiscence activities, it can help show that person that they are capable of creating things that other people can enjoy whether it’s a beautiful drawing or a touching story.
In addition to giving the patient an engaging activity to focus on, the validation art therapy lends offers a greater sense of control over their life and environment than other activities.

Art Therapy and Creating Art Help Make Caregiving Easier

Because the creative process largely bypasses the neural blocks in verbal communication that dementia causes, art offers a new form of self-expression that helps improve concentration and attention. Art and music draw from other parts of the brain that language and verbal communication do not, and creating art helps the brain form new communication pathways.
This makes people with dementia less likely to wander off or fall silent on their caregivers, which not only eases a lot of the burden on the caregiver but also makes the patient less likely to be put in harm’s way.

Tips for Finding the Right Arts and Crafts Projects

The Alzheimer’s Association has many suggestions for art and other projects that can be done at home which are appropriate for people who have middle to late stage Alzheimer’s. The organization also offers guidelines for how you should structure art projects and other activities. It’s a good idea to go with projects that you know this person enjoys, such as if they drew a lot when they were younger and would like to give it another try. Music can also be a great way for dementia patients to engage and express themselves. Depending on physical capabilities and any mental afflictions, pay attention to any potential discomfort (such as signs of pain when using art tools, or visible distress if there are loud noises.)
Whether you are doing art projects at home or in a designated area such as an art studio, keep the area clear of hazardous materials and potentially dangerous tools. With that in mind though, don’t take too much direction after choosing a project, which can result in the experience feeling demeaning (like you are guiding a child.) One of the chief reasons that art therapy has been so successful with seniors suffering from dementia is that it provides a sense of control and being able to master your environment, even if it is a small virtual one.
Art projects also don’t need to be kept small, such as a painting that can be completed in just one art class or if you set aside an hour during a caregiving schedule. They can be done over time, which also gives the patient something to look forward to and helps improve focus.
Finding the right art projects ultimately comes down to interests and physical capabilities. An activity that the whole family or group can also engage in is also something to consider.
People who suffer from dementia still have active imaginations even at the end of this progressive syndrome. Freeing the imagination can do a great deal to improve dementia sufferers’ quality of life and have small and major impacts. Creating and observing art, and being in environments that foster creativity and self-expression, isn’t a magic bullet solution for Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, these activities certainly offer significant mental health benefits that can manifest in higher brain stimulation to taking up hobbies and day-to-day activities that the patient stopped doing after dementia set in.
Creating art also provides a sense of accomplishment and self-worth that can still be felt no matter how sharp one’s memory is. But what truly makes creating and engaging with the arts a sure way to fight dementia is that science has proven that art provides a whole other means to communicate when the traditional neural pathways are not an option. Communication is key to finding the root causes of cognitive disorders and understanding them better. While art can’t cure dementia, it can revitalize memories and stimulate the brain in entirely new directions.
Categories: Care Giving Tips and General Information.

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