November 14, 2005
Whether it's a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Picasso still life, or a homey country scene by Andrew Wyeth, all of us have been deeply moved at different times in our lives by great works of art. Now, museums across the country are utilizing the therapeutic power of art to bring benefits to the millions of Americans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are among the institutions opening their doors to people with Alzheimer's. Each week, small groups of people in the early to middle stages of the disease visit the museum galleries to look at art. Individuals are encouraged to discuss the works and to express whatever thoughts and emotions come to mind. Care partners of those who attend the museum tours notice that their loved ones with Alzheimer's become more alert, emotionally charged, and talkative after a museum visit.
Art appreciation tours are a natural extension of art therapy classes, in which painting, sculpture, and other fine arts are taught to people with Alzheimer's disease. Seeing art and talking about it, like creating art, is thought to release trapped emotions and engage parts of the brain that keep the mind active and the memory intact. A study from Brighton, England in 1999 found that a 10-week art therapy program eased depression in about half of those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And during an individual art session, researchers observed, participants became more relaxed and sociable.
Earlier this year, the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee displayed a powerful collection of paintings by local men and women with Alzheimer's disease. The works, inspired by pieces in the museum's collection and created by people with Alzheimer's disease working with an art therapist, are rich in emotions, thoughts, and memories.
For many people with Alzheimer's, the ability to appreciate art, or to create it, does not diminish as the memory fades. In fact, art may prove a vital creative outlet for many with the disease who can no longer read or have trouble speaking or understanding words.
When painter and high school art teacher Wanda Lu (not her real name) was forced to retire in 1995 at age 52 because of Alzheimer's disease, she could no longer remember her students' names. But as her mental capacities declined, her artistic talent seemed to blossom. "We typically don't think that something could be getting better, we only think about what's getting worse," said Bruce L. Miller, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, who treated Ms. Lu. "Now I always ask if there's anything patients are doing very well, or better than before." [See the article,"Nurturing Inner Strengths When Dementia Strikes."]
Art, like music, seems to touch areas deep in the brain that are vital for well-being and emotional health, regardless of age or mental capacities. That's one reason why Snoezelen therapy, using rooms filled with soft colored lights, gentle music, pleasing aromas, and plush pillows, has become increasingly popular across the U.S. as well. This potentially fun and peaceful approach to stimulating the senses appears to ease the agitation, wandering, and other disturbing symptoms that so commonly afflict those with serious dementia. See the article, "Snoezlen Rooms May Offer Benefits for those with Dementia".
Art therapists who work with people with Alzheimer's disease recommend that art projects be kept on an adult level, avoiding crayons or other child-like instruments that might appear demeaning. Scissors or other sharp tools should also be avoided. In addition, it's important to engage the person in conversation, encouraging them to discuss what they are creating and to tell stories and reminisce. It may be necessary to aid the person as well, guiding the paintbrush, for example, to get the project started. Allow plenty of time, and remember the project need not be completed in one session or may be complete when the person with Alzheimer's says it is.
Randy Kennedy: The New York Times, "The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer's therapy," October 30, 2005.