How Art Therapy Enhances the Quality of Life for Dementia Patients

Mark Huntsman
By Mark HuntsmanApril 29, 2014

Dr. Daniel C. Potts founded Cognitive Dynamics after his father Lester’s death in 2007. Lester, a rural Alabama saw miller, became a renowned watercolor artist while living with Alzheimer’s disease, despite having never shown any artistic talent prior to its onset.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Potts about his remarkable father, the powerful impact of art therapy on the lives of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and the mission of Cognitive Dynamics.

“We would never have discovered my father’s talent,” says Dr. Potts, “if not for an art therapy program at a local adult daycare center, the Mal and Charlotte Moore Center for Caring Days. Dad’s creativity had profound positive effects on him and our family, and after his death we founded Cognitive Dynamics to bring these therapeutic opportunities to others in like circumstances. The mission of the organization is to improve quality of life for those with cognitive impairment and their caregivers through the expressive arts and storytelling.”

Cognitive Dynamics offers programs that foster dignity and validate Alzheimer’s patients in their current state, helping to honor their life stories, restore and preserve their sense of self. When done in combination with reminiscence activities, art therapy shows the person that their story is of value and interest to others. Not only that, but it’s a way of demonstrating to them that they are capable of adding beauty to the world for others to enjoy.

“They can lose themselves in the moment as they create,” notes Dr. Potts. Through the process of art therapy, relationships are built, empathy fostered, anxiety lessened, and a sense of mastery or control over their environment is developed. It’s a matter of discovering new ways to express yourself and communicate.

“Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process, and individuals can express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improves, and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over.”

Students Help Bring Art to Life

Offered as a service learning course in the University of Alabama Honors College, Bring Art to Life is a program that brings art therapy to people in the community with mild to moderate dementia. The program pairs three to four students with each participant, and tasks them with learning the life story of their participant during art therapy sessions over eight weeks.

“Prior to the sessions,” says Dr. Potts, “students are given training about dementia, art and other expressive arts therapies, as well as person-centered care. We partner with LifeBio to capture life story information and create a leather-bound memoir book to present to the participant at the end of the course, along with the artistic works they have created.” The program has been developed to the point that it can be offered to other academic institutions and organizations with access to community partnerships. Indeed, examples of Bring Art to Life’s positive impact are plentiful:

  1. One 90-year-old participant who was a former artist but now has vision loss due to macular degeneration, stated that she had been given her life back by learning that she can still create beautiful art with activities tailored toward engaging her sense of touch.
  2. A more advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in his late 50s has continued craft activities (such as building birdhouses) at home more than two years after Art to Life has ended. His family says that it keeps him interested and engaged, and he’s been given the confidence to even try and do this.
  3. One woman in her 80s with moderate Alzheimer’s had stopped cooking and even interacting with younger members of her family. After Bring Art to Life, she cooked Thanksgiving dinner and has continued to enjoy cooking again.

Multiple students who’ve gone through the Art to Life program have commented that it has been the most influential part of their college career. They say that it has given them empathy and understanding for those with disabilities, and instilled in them a desire to pursue service-related endeavors.

Art, Music, Writing, Drama: A Powerful Combination

Music and art are known to enrich the lives of people with Alzheimer’s. However, among the many different types of therapies, there is more data about the effectiveness of music therapy in the Alzheimer’s population than any of the others.

Dr. Potts says, “There is some good evidence that the available therapies may work best in combination—for example, art therapy plus music and dance. Or, within an art therapy session, combining creative writing and poetry, or a drama therapy session that makes use of written and spoken word, art and music in concert. What is certain is that all of them work better when reminiscence and personal expression make up an integral part of the therapy, where care is taken to not only help patients reminisce, but also to validate the their present reality.”

How to Get Started in Art Therapy

It’s not just about helping the people with dementia—art therapy is also about their caregivers. Angel Duncan, MA, MFT-ATR, is an art therapist and the Executive Arts Director at Cognitive Dynamics, and she runs Cognitive Connections, a train-the-trainer arts therapy program designed for both professional and lay caregivers. Duncan is known internationally as an expert in art therapy techniques. She conducts on-site training sessions, with participants receiving certification and manuals.

According to Dr. Potts, it’s always a good idea to contact your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to see if they know of art therapy resources available.  The Area Agencies on Aging may also be helpful in locating programs. Alzheimer’s caregiver support groups, daycare centers and Alzheimer’s disease centers at academic institutions often can recommend programs or have programs of their own. Some universities have art therapy training programs with students who might be interested in practical internships.

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Mark Huntsman

Mark Huntsman

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