Did you know engaging in creative art activities can enhance the quality of life of those who have Dementia and Alzheimer’s? Anne Davis Basting hits the nail on the head when she says” the visual arts offers a way to communicate beyond words.” Art can have a profound impact on the lives of those suffering from Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
What is Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada defines Dementia as a group of symptoms that affect the brain’s ability to reason, remember information, communicate, and perform day-to-day-activities. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common forms of dementia (50%-70 % of all dementia cases are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s). However, memory loss can also be caused by other factors such as anxiety, vitamin deficiency, cardiovascular health, infection, thyroid function, and even depression. Unlike Alzheimer’s, these conditions once diagnosed, can still be treated, are often temporary, and at times, reversible. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are faced with an incurable disease that affects both language communication and memory retention.
With Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive decline of communication skills occurs. In the early stages, there are word-finding problems, comprehension difficulties, writing and reading difficulties. Over time, word-finding problems increase and conversation diminishes. This will eventually lead to limited verbal communication, the inability to read or write, difficulty expressing feelings, and challenges in recognizing family members. We’ve discovered that emotions and creativity are some of the last functions to decline. Therefore all efforts to preserve these functions through engagement and activities should be encouraged. 
As you can see, the differences between the two conditions are significant. it is important to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment for cognitive impairments related to Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Dementia: Let’s Talk Numbers:
These numbers were provided by The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada and the results are astonishing!
- Worldwide, there are 44 million people who now have some form of dementia. In Canada, there are currently over 747,000 Canadians currently living with dementia.
- 1 in 11 Canadians over age 65 has dementia and 1 in 3 Canadians know someone with dementia.
- The Arts and Health Network points out that if real action is not taken to prevent or decrease cognitive decline, by 2031, there will be over 1.4 million Canadians living with cognitive impairment.
Take a look at this infographic provided by The Arts and Health Network here for more information on Dementia and the Art.
How Does Dementia Impact Others?
According to the “We Rage, We Weep Alzheimer’s Foundation” based in Victoria, BC, family and friends provide most of the care for those with Dementia. Moreover, 70% of caregivers assume at least 80% of the financial burden of caring for their loved one. It is also reported that those with Dementia only leave their homes once a week. You can view additional information by checking out these statistics on Dementia.
What Role Does Making Art Play in Improving the Lives of Those With Dementia and Their Caregivers?
Participating in creative arts has proven to be an effective therapeutic activity that adds to the quality of life for both patients and caregivers. For those with Dementia, being involved in creative activity, such as music, dance, and the visual arts can help diminish and prevent the progression of cognitive impairment.
Arts and Aging: The Research:
Several case studies and small trials suggest that using art as therapy improves attention span, social behavior, and self-esteem along with neuropsychiatric symptoms and psychological resilience.
In a 2006 control-group study, Dr. Gene Cohen, a leading researcher on creativity and the aging process, found that those who participating in arts and cultural programming had:
- An increase in overall health, positive moral, and improved response to treatment.
- Positive improvement of depression symptoms, social isolation, and feelings of loneliness.
- Fewer doctor’s visits and reduction on hospital stays.
- Improvement on cognitive functions.
- Decreased usage of prescription and over-the-counter medication.
Case Study – Amazement Through Art:
Alongside You had the pleasure of visiting with an elderly gentleman who was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease. His find motor skills were a challenge to use, but he managed to hold a paint brush with the help of his caregiver. He had never taken to art before, but his caregiver had tried art with him at home a few times and he seemed to enjoy it. As we helped him pick colours, apply them to the canvas and washed his brush, he kept asking: “Who is painting this, who is doing this?” He could not make the connection that he was painting the picture in front of him. After several failed attempts to explain that it was he who was in fact painting with the brushes, we had the idea to take his picture and film a short video. After filming for a short while, we set the iPad in front of him along with his painted canvas. As he looked, he slowly came to realize that it was he who had painted it and he just started to laugh. With continued fits of laughter, he just couldn’t believe it was him! “That’s me? That’s not me! I can’t do that! But I see it’s me! There I am making the picture!” He was grinning from ear to ear and it was the most animated he had been all week. His sense of humour as a youth had returned in that moment and joy filled his heart and ours. Using art, we were able to step over the barriers of verbal communication and communicate in new and exciting ways. That day, art was truly transformational.
As can be seen in the case study above, art can be used as an effective tool to slow down cognitive deterioration, stimulate and engage patients and increases the quality of life of those affected.
Person-Centered Artistic Care:
Creative arts is not a cure for Dementia or any other Dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. However, it has the power to foster dignity and restore a sense of self. By unleashing the creativity in individuals, art encourages past memories to come to life and has the power to validate a person’s current situation. Mindfulness-Based Art Programing celebrates present tasks in a non-judgmental manner, focusing on the current capabilities of a person. Often, this process brings joy and makes meaningful moments, enhancing the relationships with those around them.
Revisit our page later for our next post…where we discuss how to begin using art with Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients!
 Anne Davis Basting, Forget Memory: Creating Better Lives for People with Dementia. John Hopkins University Press. 2009: 124.
 The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. What is Dementia: Link: http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/About-dementia/What-is-dementia What is Alzheimer’s http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/About-dementia/Alzheimer-s-disease Accessed 18th September, 2016.
 Dr. C. Potts, How Art Therapy Enhances the Quality of Life for Dementia Patients. http://www.alzheimers.net/2014-04-29/art-therapy-for-alzheimers/ accessed September 16th.
 Van Lith, T, Schofied, M and Fenner, P. Identifying the evidence base for art-based practices and their potential benefit for mental health recovery; A critical review, Disability and Rehabilitation. 2013.
 Anne Bolwerk, et al. How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. PLOS ONE 9 (12): 2014
 Dr. Brian Cohen. The Creativity and Aging Study
The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults Final Report: George Washington University. 2006:1-8