The Art of Expression: Painting Proves to Be Therapeutic to Many People with Alzheimer’s

  • An article in The Journal News gives me another opportunity to bring up arts as it applies to Alzheimer's. This particular article titled, "Painting program gives Alzheimer's patients 'joy in the moment'," features licensed art therapist Marks Kahn.


    When speaking of people with Alzheimer's Kahn said, "Their short-term memory deteriorates before their long-term memory, and art is a chance to express those flashbacks..."Once they are painting, it gives them joy in the moment. They paint things that are familiar, and it brings back memories. Especially for people who can't speak, they can express themselves in pictures."

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    My community is active with the arts, and people with Alzheimer's are not left out. Most nursing homes, assisted living centers and senior centers have very nice art programs. Yes, with more funding they could do more. But our administrators and leaders are well aware of the benefits the arts can have for anyone suffering illness. Alzheimer's is no exception.


    Before I wrote Using the Arts to Promote Quality of Life for People with Alzheimer's for OurAlzheimer's, my tickler file had brought up a wonderful study on music therapy for people with Alzheimer's. Music is so primal to most being - humans and even many animals, that it seems like music therapy should be much more widespread than it is. However, as the knowledge bank grows, so do the numbers of people in communities around the world who provide music therapy.


    What I find unique about painting, and other tactile arts, is that though many people with Alzheimer's have lost their ability to express themselves, that doesn't mean they don't have thoughts and feelings. Painting a picture, or creating any kind of object that expresses trapped feelings of those who cannot express in words what they feel has enormous potential.


    My dad couldn't express his mental or physical pain, and I suffered with him as I tried to be the best advocate I could be. I kept every type of music available that I could, including a CD player with his favorite music, a director's wand, a small keyboard he could pound on, and a little drum. I wish I could have given him more. However, I did see that the physical act of making sound (it would be a stretch to call it music at this point in his life), did help him.


    I now wonder if painting would have helped him. He had never dabbled it that type of art, as he was a reader, writer and scientist. He loved foreign languages, music and culture. Those interests seemed to satisfy his pre-dementia self. Would a paint brush or finger paints, which would have been easier for him to handle, have helped him post-dementia? I think it's probable this form of expression would have been good. The nursing home did, at the time, have a visiting artist occasionally. Now, several years after Dad's death, I believe that they have a regular arts program.


    I'm happy about the progress made in many facilities across the country when it comes to the importance placed on art as therapy. I believe funding in those areas can be as important as funding for drugs. We need to research ways to stop dementia. However, there are millions of people who are suffering from that disease at this very moment. They, too, need funding so we can help them live the best quality of life they can have.


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    When words are lost as a path to expressing oneself, painting, sculpting, music, dance - any kind of creative project - can help people express what words can no longer do. Creative expression can humanize the care of people with dementia and help them to feel "heard." That, my friends, is of huge importance.


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Published On: July 30, 2010