Using the Arts to Enrich Lives and Value People with Alzheimer's

Christine Kennard Health Pro
  • John Zeisel, PhD, wants to change the way families and society view dementia. He says that when we think about Alzheimer's we picture people in the late stage and not someone in the first 10 years. He thinks we have an over medicalized view of the disease, and I think that is probably true.

    Our society fails to value mental and physical imperfection and sees disease as weakness. In our 'hyper cognitive culture' someone with less than mainstream views, is sadly seen as contributing less. In his book “I'm Still Here: A Breakthrough Approach to Understanding Someone Living with Alzheimer's”, John Zeisel argues that an Alzheimer's diagnosis should be regarded not as a sentence, but as 'a gift'. Despite what we might think of this particular perspective, Zeisel goes one to state his belief that we should embrace the new person they have become as a result of Alzheimer's disease.

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    Focus on Assets not Deficits

    We need, Zeisel says, to find ways to emotionally connect with the person that is still there by focusing on their assets and capabilities rather than the deficits and losses. By valuing the person they have become we grieve less about who they were. We may then leave ourselves free to value who they have become more.

    Focus on Improving Communication

    Listening carefully you can interpret their message.

    One to one communication is often more effective. Hold his/her hand, look into their eyes as you introduce yourself rather than remind them they have forgotten who you are (spouse/daughter/son/ friend/nurse).

    Use Art Activities to Stimulate, Activate and Give Value

    Zeisel has championed the use of trips to the theatre, movie houses, art galleries, and museums to stimulate people with dementia. Art trips for people with Alzheimer's can help them then create their own works of art. Writing poetry, participation in theatre, reacting and responding to a classic film can all activate and encourage participation and conversation. Make them feel part of something important.

    Focusing on inclusion helps reduce the 4 ‘A' symptoms of Alzheimer's says Zeisel-Agitation



    And, most importantly and most commonly, Apathy 



    As with any technique or new approach, it may not be for everyone. It may require more input than you are willing to give. However, the spirit behind what Zeisel is saying seems largely relevant and useful. There is no denying that, from the standpoint of human rights, it is about giving greater value to those you care for. Who can argue with that?

    One of the most important things a caregiver can say is that you love them. Unconditional love speaks volumes.

    Recommended Books

    I'm Still Here: A Breakthrough Approach to Understanding Someone Living with Alzheimer's, by Dr. John Zeisel

    Dr. Zeisel, is President and co-founder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care. He has a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University, and has taught at Harvard, Yale, and McGill universities.

    Dementia Reconsidered by Professor Tom Kitwood

  • More-

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    Seeing Past the Patient and Into the Whole Person



Published On: July 15, 2010