Paint me a memory

Art can provide a way for people with dementia to express themselves even after their memories and words have begun to fade away. Artistic activities give residents an outlet for emotional responses and can boost their self-esteem, help them relax, reduce their isolation and increase their attention span.

“For people with dementia, verbal interactions may remain at the level of ‘social niceties only,’ but art mixes tactile activities with emotion, engaging neuropathological pathways in a different way,” says Michele Tarsitano-Amato, director of creative arts and a therapy/dementia specialist at Kendal at Oberlin, a continuing care retirement community in Oberlin, Ohio. “It lets them go deeper and can be a bridge to social interactions and allow them to engage and contribute.”

“Wedding Day” by Bea Burnkrant, who says, "The wedding was June 7, 1945, approximately. I wore white–not stark white, cream. Think of the prettiest flower you can think of and that's what we had at our wedding."

Long-term care facilities can incorporate art into residents’ lives in many ways, including through art therapy, artistic creativity programs and experiences that allow residents to interact with existing works of art by visiting museums and galleries.

Art therapy

As a board-certified art therapist, Tarsitano-Amato uses different art media to help residents meet therapeutic goals. For example, residents who are struggling with spatial issues can benefit from working with a 3-D medium such as clay. Residents with finger dexterity or sequencing challenges can benefit from weaving activities in which they work through a specific pattern.

"I create a plan of care to help target specific needs, like a physical therapist would for people with mobility issues," she explains.

Tarsitano-Amato sometimes has residents work on projects as a group, which can offer the added benefit of social interactions as each person works on an aspect of the project that aligns with his or her goals. One example was a 3-foot-by-6-foot lighted stained glass creation made by residents about two years ago. It took the group about a year to complete the project, which now hangs in the community center.

“The project gave residents many opportunities, including social interaction, dexterity exercises, spatial relationship work and team work,” she says.

She adapts her art therapy strategy as a person’s dementia progresses. For example, a resident may lose her ability to work well with ceramics and may not want to produce something that seems unsatisfactory. Tarsitano-Amato may suggest she switch to a two-dimensional medium, such as making a collage. “We adjust what they do so they can feel successful,” she says. “Sometimes, a more forgiving medium makes it easier for them to enjoy the process.”

Memories in the Making program

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Memories in the Making program is an opportunity for people with dementia to express themselves in a safe, fun environment. Lisa Steffen, Colorado program coordinator for Memories in the Making, oversees the program in about 100 care communities across the state. She says the program helps the residents be more engaged and communicate in nonverbal ways.

Kendal at Oberlin residents created a stained glass artwork as a team.

The program is run by facility volunteers and staff members trained in working with people with dementia and in how to use art materials effectively in this setting. Sessions usually are held weekly for about an hour and include groups of five to 10 people with dementia.

The individualized approach allows each person to choose an object to use as his or her inspiration for artistic expression, instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach in which everyone is painting the same vase of flowers.

“It’s empowering for them to choose what they want to work on,” Steffen says. “The experience of having dementia involves giving up so much autonomy and having so many decisions made for you. The process of letting them choose an object and then make something tangible gives them a feeling of achievement that can be rare for them.”

Having individual inspirations is also practical, since it allows the object to be placed in the person’s direct line of sight. People with vision problems might not be able to clearly see an object that is sitting in a central location, she explains.

The facilitators try to tune in to the residents at each step and encourage them how to proceed, but they never work on the art projects themselves. All work is done solely by the participants. The Memories in the Making process includes a journaling, in which the facilitator will record some of the artist’s comments and observations about the work in pencil on the back of the painting.

“Sometimes things will come out spontaneously, but the facilitator also purposefully engages them to discuss their work by asking open-ended questions,” Steffen says.

The facilitators know they might need to wait longer for an answer than if they were speaking to someone without dementia, as dementia can slow down the pathways for incoming and outgoing communications, she says. “Being able to wait for (a response) will sometimes let you be rewarded with a wonderful answer from someone who normally doesn’t talk much,” Steffen said.

“Shiva's Temple – Waco Throne” by Larry Mann, who says, "This painting took Larry several months to draw and paint. He was very excited as this painting came together. He really liked the colors and adding layers to the painting."

Accessing memories is not the goal, but memories often do emerge in the process. Since dementia primarily affects short-term memory, a resident’s recollections often come from long ago, from their working years or even their childhood.

“Sometimes stories come out that the families haven’t even heard before,” she said. “It’s very neat.”

A key feature of Memories in the Making program is that it always uses fine art materials. Giving residents high-quality paper, paint, brushes and other supplies shows their work is valued, Steffen says. It also results in quality pieces suitable for framing and have more of an archival value for their families.

The art that is created through Memories in the Making always belongs to the artist, but some of it is donated by the residents or their family to an annual fundraising auction of items from across the state to support the program. Individual care communities also will sometimes display creations in their facility or use it as the basis for notecards, calendars, cookbooks and the like.

Working with museums

Museum-based programs expose people with dementia to the power of art by encouraging them to view a piece of art, then discuss it.

The Frye Art Museum in Seattle has offered an arts-engagement program called “here:now” since 2010. It is sponsored by Alzheimer’s Association Western and Central Washington Chapter and Elderwise, a Seattle nonprofit focused on cultural enrichment for older adults. The program was inspired by Meet Me at MoMA, a program started at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005.

As with the Meet Me at MoMA program, the Frye program uses specially trained educators who guide small groups of people with dementia and their care partners through a discussion-based viewing of three or four paintings, explains Mary Jane Knecht, manager of creative aging at the museum. The museum also offers a six-week class that includes a studio art-making experience.

The free monthly tours last about 90 minutes and, importantly, do not require participants have to remember anything from their past. They are just able to enjoy the art without angst about lost memories. “It’s an opportunity to honor and celebrate living in the moment,” Knecht says.

“Colors Flow” by Edna Stenehjem, who says, "Blue is my favorite color. The colors are just before everything turns into autumn. It's during the peak of summer."

Participants who also do the art-making segment (a popular option, she says) might look at a few pieces of art, such as watercolors, then go to the art studio to discuss watercolors and learn painting techniques before picking up a brush. “This is a new experience for many of them, but for some, it is renewing something they did earlier in their life,” she said.

The museum tours also include a short coffee-and-snack time, which gives participants a chance to socialize and lets the care partners share ideas and experiences with each other.

The museum has also launched an off-site program that goes into private homes and memory care facilities in the area. Trained volunteers work with people experiencing cognitive decline in a creative-art program, typically offered in group meetings over six weeks. “Our overall aim is to bring respect and dignity to people living with dementia and to help break down the stigma of living with dementia, and we are trying to do that from various perspectives,” Knecht says.

Such programs acknowledge that the person still has creative capabilities. “We celebrate personal strengths, creativity and the ability to still be social with other adults,” she says. “Dementia can really isolate people.”

Art programs also can build self-confidence. For example, the program leaders will share completed works with the rest of the group, and the creator receives a lot of encouragement and support from the community that develops, Knecht says. “You can see the person with dementia really almost sit up a little straighter and feel confident in themselves in a way that we perhaps didn’t see when they first came in the door.”

Beth Thomas Hertz is a freelancer writer based in Akron, Ohio.

Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles