Creative Art Therapy: Stimulating, Enabling, and Empowering

Finding ways to enhance the well-being and quality of life of people with dementia is vital.  As research continues to focus on new promising pharmacological solutions, putting measures in place, such as Creative Art Therapy, to promote enrichment and enablement in the lives of those living with a diagnosis is important.

In recent years, there has been an interest in the benefits that creative and arts-based interventions can offer those living with a diagnosis of dementia.  This type of therapy has been found to provide a sense of well-being and improve physical health and support social inclusion.  Studies have even shown that engagement with arts and culture has slowed down cognitive decline in the early stages of dementia, stimulating the brain, increasing concentration and attention, and helping with increased motor skills. 

In this article, we take a closer look at this promising area of therapeutic care and what it can offer family members with dementia. 

What is Creative Art Therapy? 

Creative Arts therapy

Creative Art Therapy is an umbrella term for creative and expressive approaches to creating activities that can help improve and enhance the psychological and social well-being of individuals of all ages and health conditions.  In the book Creative Approaches in Dementia Care, the authors Hilary Lee and Trevor Adams describe the creative arts as a shift in perspective whereby we re-frame our view of dementia from “disability to possibility”.  They discuss how when engrossed in a creative task, our spirit is ignited when the mind fully engages in the task. 

What creative therapies can we do at home?

Doing activities at home can be easy to pull together.  Creative arts may not be for everyone.  However, it will be a worthwhile exercise if you feel your loved one may find enjoyment.  It doesn’t need to be expensive or difficult to set up; something as simple as getting a colouring book or jigsaw puzzle is a step in the right direction and will stimulate the brain differently.  These activities can be started and then returned at any time.  Alzheimer’s Society provides five great creative activities to do at home here. Check out 100 art therapy exercises, suggestions for colouring books, or ten fun, no-fail activities for people with dementia

Painting, listening to music, poetry sessions, looking through old photographs, and dancing together can also be valuable bonding exercises.  It can help nurture relationships and provide a fun and easy thing to do together. 

dementia care therapeutic care lady painting egg with grandaughter image
(Image by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels)

Some more activities to consider include:

Art: a fun and relaxing activity.  

Whether through drawing, painting, or even sculpting, art therapy offers focus, stimulation, a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and an avenue for powerful non-verbal self-expression.  
The documentary “I remember better when I paint”, demonstrates how drawing and painting help stimulate memories in people with dementia and allow them to gain feelings of reconnection with the world around them.

  “I like to be active, to use the old brain box…..alive and alert, I feel pretty good after creating something….something achieved.”

(Man with dementia in his 80s who has lived with dementia for some years)
Excerpt from Creative Approaches in Dementia Care, p110)

Many initiatives are established around the UK, offering guidance on integrative arts-based therapy.  Many local and national incentives are available.  Arts4Dementia is a UK-based organisation offering information, resources, events, and training in arts-based therapy in dementia care.  Their motto is “empowerment through artistic stimulation”.  They offer a signposting facility to find dementia-friendly events throughout the UK.  They also provide a fantastic range of resources for organisations, individuals, family carers, and people with dementia in progressing the creative arts in dementia care. 

Dance: an opportunity for self-awareness and self-expression. 

Dance allows us to connect with others.  It offers physical and cognitive stimulation through movement and non-verbal engagement.  It can also help nurture feelings of togetherness, lighten our mood and reduce anxiety.  Studies have also shown that in a therapeutic circle dance, people with dementia regain a sense of direction and balance. It can also help connect with others through feelings of belonging.  Dance can be anything from waltzing together at home, joining a local dance class, or even being part of programmes such as “Time to Dance” by Scottish Ballet for people with dementia.  Online resources for the class and upcoming events can be found here.

Music: offering enjoyment and stimulating memories.  

People with dementia will often remember the words to their favourite songs and sing along.  Singing has a real feel-good factor.  It raises our energy levels and helps us feel connected with others.  It helps us immerse ourselves in the present moment, giving us an immediate sense of self-worth and well-being.  Listening to relaxing music can also provide a sense of calm and relaxation.  It can also offer huge stimulation to the mind and body, as seen in this video of Henry.  Initiatives such as Playlist for Life, run by Scottish broadcaster and writer Sally Magnusson, offer the opportunity to make personalised playlists.  Read more about the benefits of music in our article entitled “The Power of Music in Dementia”.

Poetry:  involves the use of reading or writing poems to promote well-being. 

It can be through existing literature or encouraging those with dementia to produce their literary works to express deep-seated emotions.  In either case, the aim is to offer a safe, non-judgmental activity where people can explore their written expressions and associated emotional responses. 

Reminiscence: engaging in activities that share life experiences, stories, and memories from the past.

Although people with dementia can have problems with short-term memory, they can remember events from their past.  Allowing and helping people with dementia to share memories from their younger years or childhood is a great way to feel at one with themselves and remember happy times.  Often, simple things can help prompt memories, such as a photo, an object, a song, or doing a task together.    The goal is to help the person feel valued and content by recalling happy times from the past.  We can use many creative approaches in reminiscence, including making a photo album together, a life scrapbook, or creating a memory box.  Read more on reminiscence in our article dedicated to this topic.

dementia care therapeutic creative arts reminiscing
(Image by Ron Lach from Pexels)

How can creative arts help family members with dementia?

Involvement in creative art therapy, no matter how small, can improve the well-being, relationships, and quality of life of people with dementia.  It can help people express themselves and communicate in ways that are still meaningful.  Some other beneficial factors include:

  • Making Sense of the World: The Arts provide a vehicle for people with dementia to make sense of the world around them, whether through painting a picture, listening to music, or reminiscing about their past life.  It provides a sense of achievement and allows people to connect and make sense of their experiences and accomplishment.  
  • Identifying with Sense of Self: Being involved in creative arts can help us retain a degree of autonomy and control within our lives.  Becoming involved in creative arts can help us see behind the diagnostic label.  We can see the person behind dementia.  It can bring out hidden strengths.  In whatever form, it can allow people to continue to express who they are and what is meaningful to them.
  • Maintaining Connection: Relationships are central to the care experiences of people with dementia.  People with dementia often feel socially alone and challenged by existing or new social networks.  Often with the progression of the disease, however, people with dementia can begin to feel isolated.  Creative and arts-based approaches provide people with dementia a means of connecting with themselves and the outside world.  Being involved in creative tasks can help give a sense of comfort and normality. 
  • Creative and arts-based interventions can help regenerate feelings of togetherness and belonging, whether amongst family members, care providers, or the broader community.  Often, these experiences are new for the family, too, when they perhaps see their loved one in a new light, happy, excited, moved, or curious.  Doing art together can bring a sense of oneness and be together.  
  • Expression through non-verbal means: Participating in and controlling a project can offer a sense of achievement and allow for expressing private thoughts and feelings.   A painting can also communicate to others in a non-verbal way the innermost thoughts and feelings which can no longer be expressed in words.  Have a look at this video in which Lester Potts, brought up during the American Depression, a member of a hard-working family who owned a family sawmill, conveys his poignant message to his family, summing up his whole life, representing teamwork, strength, labour, trust and family commitment.
  • Combatting sense of loss: Sadly, the traditional view of dementia is loss, focusing on what the person can’t do.  And yet, many people with dementia can continue living life meaningfully for many years.  Emotions remain, as does the ability to express likes and dislikes, wants and needs.  Concentrating on the deficits of dementia leaves us forgetting the person as a whole and stops us from focusing on new approaches to maintaining skills or connecting in new ways.  So, looking to new and innovative tools such as creative arts to help counter these feelings of loss and improve well-being and quality of life, engagement, and enablement are key.
  • Maintaining Skills: In terms of the diseases associated with dementia, while some areas of the brain that govern many of our intellectual activities (i.e., communication skills) may be affected, others remain relatively intact.  Depending on the disease causing the symptoms of dementia, the frontal lobes, responsible for personality and emotional control, are often relatively intact until the end stages of the condition;  aesthetic preferences remain constant, as do musical abilities and memories.  

The great thing about creative arts is that there is no “right answer” or “the right way to do it”. It is something present at the moment.  These concepts apply universally, no matter what our cognitive or functional ability.  Therefore, engaging in creative and arts-based activities can improve general physical health, subjective well-being, and quality of life for people with dementia.

I hope you have enjoyed this article.  While Art therapy isn’t a cure, it can offer many benefits, including improved self-esteem and well-being.  

Thank you for reading.  Please like, share, and comment if this article is helpful.  Please also check out our other articles on self-care for family carers and therapeutic interventions for people with dementia.

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