Art therapy is often life-changing for those struggling with cognitive impairments like dementia. It allows individuals an opportunity to reconnect with others; imbues them with a sense of purpose; and creates a place of calm where previously there was struggle and unease.
Understanding dementia is key to realizing how art therapy can help ease the anxiety and stress that often accompanies it. Learn more below about what dementia and memory loss entail, and how art therapy can be helpful for older adults living with these disorders.
Understanding dementia and memory loss
In very basic terms, dementia is a cluster of symptoms that pertain to thinking, reasoning, and remembering. A person loses the cognitive abilities to retain new information, reason with reality and think through the steps it takes to complete a task.
With a typical, normal functioning brain we go through our days without thinking about the steps it takes to complete simple tasks, like getting dressed or preparing breakfast. We think it. We do it. If you’re living with dementia, however, you lose the ability to complete the task you set out to do.
Dementia leads to an inability to communicate – which leads to frustration
As the disease progresses it also becomes very difficult for those living with dementia to communicate their needs and express their wants in a typical way.
And what happens when you can’t communicate? You become frustrated. And then we see “behaviors.” If you know someone living with cognitive impairments, it’s likely you’ve heard of “behaviors” that frustrate the care partner.
Art therapy, in turn, helps individuals with dementia communicate
My mission is to help the person in question communicate and express themselves through the creation of art. I give the person living with dementia reprieve from their daily struggles. I want this person to feel like they can live again. I want this person to be seen.
Art is the metaphor. Plain and simple. It can communicate for us. It can tell us things we don’t even know we were consciously trying to communicate. Someone living with dementia is communicating with how they use the media, what they decide to create, and the conversation that occurs along the way.
What art therapy for adults with memory loss looks like
It starts with an introduction to the care partner – and the client
Prior to meeting with clients, I interview their care partner. A lot of my questions are to obtain long-term memories, getting to know where the client is now in their day-to-day functioning and some of the wishes that the care partner has for their loved one. A care partner may set goals for the person and a lot of the time the care partner simply wants to see their loved one experience joy. Depending on the client's cognition level, they too can set goals.
The initial information I obtain from the care partner aids in my establishing a relationship with the client (who, in the beginning, may not know who I am).
I leave it up to the family to tell their loved one what my role is. Some will tell their loved one that I am an art therapist, others may call me an art teacher.
The quality of our relationship matters. How I make them feel about themselves is what really matters. The heart of it is that they feel good and comfortable around me to be themselves in the moment.
A creative cognitive assessment
In the first session, I come with a few options that help me gauge where the client’s cognitive processes are in relation to the creative arts.
I am looking for how they communicate verbally and through the art creation process. Clients always have my undivided attention, and if the care partner would like to participate, they can. The bottom line is that this is client-centered therapy.
The session is tailored to the client’s wishes
I validate the client’s experience, always saying yes. We do what the client wants and they can choose the project they want to work on. I have an art cart that I bring with me to each client’s home and they select from different materials.
For the client, it can feel empowering to have the freedom to be able to go through the cart without being stopped or having someone else step in to do it for them. We then use those supplies to communicate.
Sometimes, we walk around the home looking for something to be inspired by. It’s nice to be in their home, because trinkets that might seem mundane to visitors can possess a lot of meaning and spark storytelling.
Every client is going to be different and prefer different things. For some clients I go in with a pre-planned project and the client does what they want with it. For others, they create similar things of their own choice every week. Every now and then I might bring a new “project.” If the client doesn’t want to try it, then we don’t. It’s all about them and their choice.
Overall sessions are much simpler than other therapy types
I am very much client-centered. When working with someone who is living with cognitive impairments, it’s important to remember that this person will not get better. This person is living with a complex, degenerative disease that at the end of the day will get worse. That sheer fact – it will get worse – impacts what therapy looks like.
It means that goals are a lot simpler than traditional therapy. This person is not going to be able to learn skills and overcome their disease. This person needs simpler structure.
For some, it will be that for an hour the person is seen and heard without judgment. It might be that I’m working with a person and they’ve experienced a stroke or a traumatic thing has happened in their life and then that’s what I hear about every time I see them.
As their therapist, I see this as what they need to get off their chest in that moment. A lot of clients have lost their ability to drive and for some, that’s what we talk about while creating art or they create art repetitively about losing this ability.
My job is to be there with them as they experience these feelings. I offer validation that yes, it is terrible to lose this ability they’ve had for the past 60 years.
Family members may use that time to tend to other needs, such as self-care
I provide clients with 50 minutes of undivided attention, even if their loved one is in the room. There are also families who know that their loved one will get the most out of the session if they’re not around.
They may use the time to take care of something they needed to do. I think it’s important to remember that being a care partner to a person with dementia is one of the hardest jobs.
The care partner has to be on 24 hours a day for the person living with dementia. They may see the time as their own respite and they can also have their own self-care during this time.
Art therapy is effective for reducing anxiety and depression
Studies confirm the efficacy of art therapy for helping clients who are living with dementia. Additionally, families tell me that there has been a reduction in their loved ones anxiety or depression in the hours following sessions.
Families have reported that their loved one remembers that I’m supposed to be there on a particular day. If I don't come that day or my time changes, clients notice. Clients may also ask about art during the week between session.
Families have also reported that they didn’t know their loved one could make choices anymore. They are shocked that the client could choose which material to use and decide how to use it on their own. Through observing our work together, families often learn better ways to approach their loved one and report seeing a reduction in the client's day-to-day anxiety.
One of the more powerful moments of working with this population of clients is to witness a person who has difficulty speaking be able to put full sentences together. I feel so honored to be able to work with this population and often astounded at the reach of art therapy.
Working with older adults living with dementia gives them an hour of possibilities. It’s an hour when that person can come as they are, and be accepted. The client is seen for who they are in the moment, and not the disease.