Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s

May 5, 2009

May 5, 2009

Who hasn’t stood mesmerized before a Picasso portrait, a Cezanne still life or a rapturous seascape by Claude Monet or Winslow Homer? Now, museums across the country are reaching out to people with Alzheimer’s in order to bring the soothing power of art into the minds of those tackling dementia.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently received a major, two-year grant from the MetLife Foundation to expand its “Meet Me At MoMA” program, which offers small group sessions and workshops for people in the early to mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The program began in 2006 and has since offered educational services to more than 2,000 people with Alzheimer’s as well as their family members and caregivers. Other museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, offer similar programs.

As part of the MoMA grant, the museum will also be expanding its Web programs in order to educate other museum program directors and health care facilities around the globe. The museum is also conducting a study, in conjunction with the New York University School of Medicine, to assess the effects of art therapy on those with Alzheimer’s disease.

The “Meet Me at MoMA” program guides people with Alzheimer’s through lively discussions of works by modern masters like Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Tours are typically given during non-public hours to help ensure a minimum of distractions. Specially trained museum educators guide participants through the various works on display.

The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project is also expanding its services to teach staff at assisted living facilities, nursing homes and other organizations across the country how to integrate art education into an Alzheimer’s therapy plan. Among the tools will be Web-based tips on how to make art accessible to those with Alzheimer’s disease.

MoMA, like other museums, offers weekly or monthly tours for people in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. 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.

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.

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 why both art and music therapy are increasingly being used for people with Alzheimer’s disease. [See the ALZinfo.org story, “Play a Song, or Sing Along, for Alzheimer’s,” at Click Here ]

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. And during an individual art session, researchers observed, participants became more relaxed and sociable.

By teaming with NYU Medical Center, MoMA will provide further scientific support on the benefits of art therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that the program provides a soothing boost in mood for participants, as well as mental stimulation and positive social interaction. The study will use surveys, focus groups and observation by medical researchers to quantify the effects on patients and caregivers. Results are expected later this year.

In addition to museum tours, art therapists who work with people with Alzheimer’s disease say that art projects may also be beneficial. They recommend that 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.

To learn about the art for Alzheimer’s program visit the web site of the Museum of Modern Art.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


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