Re-Engaging Through Art, Music and Dance
by Deborah Shouse
Is there a way to upend the limits of Alzheimer’s disease? Expressive therapies focus on what people can do and their successes. Cultural programs offer creative opportunities for those with dementia and their care partners.
Artful Imagination Prompts Participation
“Looking at art and making observations gives people living with dementia a chance to exercise their imagination and creativity,” says Susan Shifrin, Ph.D., director of ARTZ Philadelphia, part of the Artists for Alzheimer’s program founded by John Zeisel, Ph.D., and Sean Caulfield. “There are no right or wrong answers. People are enlivened, realizing they still have ideas to contribute.”
Prior to a museum visit, an ARTZ facilitator brings photos of familiar works of art that evoke memories, emotions and conversation to a care facility. The facilitator then tailors a museum visit so that the most engaging works of art are viewed. A similarly beneficial at-home ARTZ experience relates to the individual’s background or interests, looking for images that tell a story about families or feature animals the loved one likes.
“Use open-ended, non-judgmental questions to discuss the art,” Shifrin suggests. “It’s all about listening to the response and encouraging the conversation.”
Musical Connections Trigger Happiness
Dan Cohen of Brooklyn, New York, had a simple yet profound idea: Furnish people that have memory loss with an iPod loaded with their favorite music. It’s helping people nationwide reconnect with themselves through listening to their personal playlists. He has repeatedly seen how “The music transforms lives.”
Cohen notes, “Residents who were formally idle become engrossed in listening to their favorite music. They are empowered to choose the songs they want to hear. They become engaged as the music triggers memories. I’ve also seen the experience make people more social.” He recommends using headphones to minimize distractions. Sit together, turn on the iPod and watch for smiles of delight.
Dance Movement Integrates Souls
“Dance therapy enhances connections in the brain and uses movement to integrate body, mind and spirit,” says Erica Hornthal, owner of Chicago’s North Shore Dance Therapy, a psychotherapy practice that helps individuals cope with the challenges of dementia.
Hornthal often notices a real change after people experience movement therapy. Often, when she enters a memory care facility, she sees people withdrawn or sleeping. After she guides them in specific movements designed to connect mind and body, participants are usually awake, more alert and making eye contact.
“We might reach our arms up, then down, to connect with ourselves. We might give ourselves a hug and then stretch toward our neighbor,” explains Hornthal, a board-certified dance movement therapist. “All the movements have a psychosocial goal.”
She suggests that care partners play familiar music and encourage their loved one to move as they wish to. The care partner might move her head or wiggle her fingers to the music, inviting the other to do the same. “Focus on what your loved one can do and celebrate their abilities,” Hornthal advises.
Brushing Watercolor Memories
“Even after memory and cognitive functions are damaged, the ability to create art can continue,” says Karen Clond, a licensed master social worker and dementia care specialist at the Alzheimer’s Association Heart of America chapter, in Prairie Village, Kansas. “The organization’s Memories in the Making art program works because the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with emotions and memory that processes feelings like fear, also processes beauty, appreciation and attachment.”
Sally Jenny developed the program in 1988, which now boasts more than 4,000 participant artists a week. Facilitators create a safe and encouraging atmosphere to explore painting with watercolors, which can unlock memories, stimulate thoughts and promote social interaction. The process also produces tangible pieces they’ve created and can revisit. “The artists have complete control over their work,” Clond comments. “It’s a failure-free activity.”
For at-home painting activities, she suggests inviting guidelines: Provide good-quality supplies; have no expectations; find something good in every effort; ask them to title their piece and affix their artist’s signature; call them an artist and provide artistic respect.
Telling Personal Stories Improves Well-Being
“Creative storytelling for dementia patients replaces the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine,” remarks Joan Williamson, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a coordinator and master trainer with TimeSlips. She’s seen it improve communication, self-esteem and social interaction for people with memory loss.
Whether exploring art, music, movement or storytelling, expressive therapies can enrich the lives and connections of people with dementia and their caregivers.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.