Art therapy has proven to be a powerful tool for treating Alzheimer’s disease. More than giving patients something pretty to look at or an exercise to keep them busy, it stimulates the brain. It stirs memories and can bring language back into the life of someone who struggles to speak. Learn more about how art therapy affects the brain.
Studies show that art therapy gives back to Alzheimer’s patients, in some part, what the disease has taken away. It stimulates the senses, can trigger dormant memories and encourages conversation. Whether they’re viewing or creating art themselves, Alzheimer’s patients can use it as a form of expression, particularly individuals who can’t communicate verbally. Patients don’t necessarily recover lost words through this treatment, but can explore a new vocabulary.
The Science Behind Art Therapy and Alzheimer’s
Research recently published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, examines how Alzheimer’s patients recall events through artwork. Studies focused on the cases of two women, both artists, suffering from types of Alzheimer’s and dementia. In both cases, art assisted in boosting cognitive function in areas of the brain.
The Case of Mary Hecht
Experts first focused their research on sculptor Mary Hecht, who suffered from vascular dementia and passed away in 2013. Similar to Alzheimer’s, this illness reduces blood flow to the brain, impairing cognitive function.
Hecht couldn’t recall time on a clock or name common animals. But, her artistic skills were as sharp as ever. She could sketch portraits of people from memory as well as reproduce a drawing she’d done herself.
In interviews with Hecht’s researchers, Medical Daily reports how art allows Alzheimer’s patients to bypass language. Essentially, it helps the brain navigate a new communication path. Art, as well as music, draw from parts of the brain that language doesn’t.
Although experts agree that art therapy won’t cure Alzheimer’s, it offers patients the chance to create and enjoy that experience, and provides them with a sense of accomplishment.
The Case of Lonni Sue Johnson
Researchers then looked to artist Lonni Sue Johnson, who, after suffering viral encephalitis, lost the ability to form new memories. According to an article published in Time, brain scans performed by doctors from Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities showed damage to her hippocampus and its surrounding structures. Destroyed by the virus, Johnson’s hippocampus no longer consolidated short-term memories into long-term ones.
Johnson can remember some details from her childhood but doesn’t recognize people if they leave her room and return again a moment later. However, she can identify her own drawings. She can also still play the viola, read music and learn to play new songs – all skills learned before her illness. Neuroscientists link these capabilities to procedural or muscle memory, suggesting that the procedural memory system remains intact for amnesia patients, a breakthrough in the field.
Ultimately, experts hope to use the knowledge they gain through Johnson’s case to treat patients with Alzheimer’s. While Johnson is happy to cooperate with ongoing brain scans and tests, she remains eager for some semblance of the life she had. Although she can’t remember it all, she knows she’s missing something.
Connecting Alzheimer’s and Community Arts
A recent article in USA Today describes how art therapy can awaken patients in cognitive decline. It can inspire a senior with limited speech to use a paintbrush to communicate, and it can lessen aggressive behavior. At Harrison Terrace, a senior living facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, art and dance classes are used to help connect seniors with memories from their past. In addition, art offers a chance to connect socially, helping lower the sense of isolation that often accompanies Alzheimer’s.
The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) hosts an annual art contest that encourages and recognizes artistic skills of senior living residents nationwide. At Emeritus, a senior community that runs its own residential art contest, art is promoted as a means of stimulating and strengthening the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, during renovations over the next two years, Emeritus plans to donate 10,000 pieces of art to other nonprofits and senior centers as a way to share the beauty of art.
To further the use of art as an Alzheimer’s therapy, the I’m Still Here Foundation Foundation started its Artists for Alzheimer’s (ARTZ) initiative. ARTZ has developed cultural programs that provide over 10,000 Alzheimer’s and dementia patients access to community arts and cultural events. The idea is to enhance the lives of Alzheimer’s patients and reduce their symptoms.
Art Inspires Memories
Art therapy won’t eliminate the illness, but it can stimulate the brain in a new direction.
The creativity and happiness that art brings can make all the difference in the life of a loved one who’s been progressively in decline.