For those of us that have experience caring for individuals with dementia, the struggle to engage them in various tasks and activities is likely a familiar one. Although the nature of dementia is such that some tasks are just no longer feasible for those it affects, this doesn’t mean that they must live boring and unfulfilled lives. Creative expression has been shown to serve as a therapeutic process and provide both cognitive and emotional benefits to those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.1 In fact, research has acknowledged that dementia does not impact creativity – in some cases, it even increases it – so creative expression should be encouraged.1 Activities exercising creativity can include anything from yoga and meditation to painting and storytelling – but keep the interests of the dementia patient in mind! An individual with a passion for literature will be much more engaged by poetry and storytelling than by a painting lesson.
I remember walking into the beautifully decorated apartment of Adam Brown*, an 81-year-old man in one of the later stages of dementia, on my first day of work as his Caregiver. I struggled to encourage him to open up and engage him in a conversation, and found that all my attempts to do so were met with awkward rejection. As I continued to work for Adam, I quickly realized that his day almost always consisted of breakfast at 9 am, followed by flipping through the paper for a few hours, completing a word search or flipping through a photo album for a couple more, and then settling down in bed with dinner to watch Hitch at 5 pm. He was quiet and expressionless, as well as unwilling to stray from his mundane daily routine.
His days continued in this robotic, meaningless fashion until I learned from looking at old photographs that he had been a painter in his younger years. I bought some art supplies and spent a day painting with him, and was surprised by his level of enthusiasm and engagement. We talked about his childhood, friends, family and travels as we painted, and I learned more about him in one day than I had in an entire week. I also saw him smile for the first time as he finished his painting of a pug in a beret and glasses. We let the paintings dry and as we sat down in front of the TV to watch Hitch he said to me, “You see that painting? The funny one, with the dog in a hat? I painted that myself”.
*Name has been changed to ensure privacy
- Lunde A. Alzheimer's stops where creativity begins. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-blog/dementia-and-art/bgp-20055862. Published August 6, 2013. Accessed February 6, 2018.