More than Words Art Therapy Adds a Color to the Palette of Treatment for Alzheimer’s

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, the value of art knows no boundary.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is both incurable and progressively degenerative. While science has not found a way to prevent it, caregivers, using both pharmaceuticals and various emotional and behavioral therapies, can still lessen the severity of the symptoms and improve quality of life for those afflicted with the disease.

Dr. Simone Alter-Muri, associate professor at Springfield College in the school’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, said that Alzheimer’s might attack the brain, but using the wordless language of art can help that part of the individual that still remains.

“Their mind may be affected,” she said, “but art is the language of the heart.”

Art therapy for AD is a relatively new treatment. But where it might lack a lengthy medical history, the treatment has picked up supporters from both the medical community and the art world.

In her 2005 book When Words Have Lost Their Meaning, art therapist Ruth Abraham wrote that, even as a relatively new resource for treatment of AD, “art therapy proves to be a powerful medium because it bypasses the dominant verbal aspects of brain function.”

A 2009 documentary called I Remember Better When I Paint examines the role of art in the science of treatment for Alzheimer’s. In the film, several renowned researchers and neurologists from leading American medical facilities explain what they have determined to be positive roles for visual and creative arts in the treatment of the disease.

From assisted-care facilities, art therapy has branched out to major museums across the U.S. Since 2006, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has hosted a monthly seminar for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Called “Meet Me: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia,” the program is a guided tour through MoMA’s collections as a means of mental stimulation.

Talking to USA Today at the inception of the now-successful and widely emulated program, Francesca Rosenberg of MoMA’s education department said that “there aren’t that many places for that kind of meaningful recreation for people with Alzheimer’s.

“We wanted to provide a place where families could feel that this was a safe place, that it was a supportive environment,” she continued. “What we’ve noticed is that there’s an awakening. They’re really coming alive before our eyes. For many of them, they are able to make connections to memories, thoughts that they haven’t been able to get hold of for a very, very long time.”

At Wingate at Hampden, a skilled-nursing facility, the experience of art isn’t limited to what the residents can see on the walls.

For the past three years, art educator Amy Creasia has been teaching art classes to the residents there, and she said that the evidence of her efforts is not only the tangible objects created by her students with Alzheimer’s, but in the behavior, mood, and interactions between residents.

“I have one gentleman who never came out of his room and never participated in any of the activities,” she told HCN. “He happened to be in the dining room when I was running a group. I gave him a piece of paper and asked if he wanted to join us, and now he is in my group every single time. He’s doing a series of religious paintings, and I think he is finding some real peace in that.”

Picture of Health

Alter-Muri said that, before the work of one woman in the late 1980s, art therapy for AD was still a blank canvas.

Focusing more generally on the needs of the elderly, Elizabeth Layton and her art therapist, Robert Ault, made significant improvements in her treatment, and took the results to Washington. In 1990, after Layton spoke before Congress, art therapy became recognized as a beneficial treatment for the elderly and was appended to the Older Americans Act of 1965, meaning that facilities receiving federal funding could now budget art therapists in their staff.

“That’s when it became more widely known as a treatment for AD and dementia,” Alter-Muri said, “but people have been using art therapy in various ways for ages. It’s a non-verbal communication, and when dealing with AD, there are so many different stages. When you are holding a lot of yourself in and not able to express yourself, you need some kind of expression, and art can be that language.”

Improved communication is one example of art therapy’s contribution to a person with Alzheimer’s, she explained, and Creasia said that better dialogue can help not only the residents with whom she works, but also their family members.

“One resident’s son used to be an artist, but had stopped painting,” she said. “His mother is a resident here, and was in my class. She didn’t really paint all that much, but she started to. Her son has now come in, and he’s back into painting because his mother does. They have that link now that they didn’t before.”

Some of the projects that Creasia works on in her classes help in dealing with the residents’ memories, a fragile aspect of the mind suffering from AD.

One project she described involved a black-and-white photograph of her students’ hands, holding an object that held some value to them. In painting and coloring over the black-and-white image, the residents concentrated on an image that was close to their own history. An important aspect of art therapy, this allows the person to emphasize the abilities that they do have, and to help improve their concentration.

But working with elements of memory loss can be fraught with complications for those with Alzheimer’s, because there are so many levels of an individual’s own degenerative affliction. In art therapy, one way to further emphasize those abilities that do remain, rather than focusing on those that have been lost, is the simple act of allowing freedom of expression.

“In assisted living there is diminished personal decision-making,” said Alter-Muri. “But if you’re doing an art project, those little choices like an option between using red or blue … this empowers people. That one small choice becomes something very important. In times of immense turmoil, there is the possibility for such a small role to have much-greater repercussions.”

At Wingate, Creasia described a project that she had recently finished called “A Room With a View.”

“The residents painted on watercolor paper a scene that they would like to see out a window — could be a seascape, a landscape, that kind of thing,” she described. “Then we attached that to a backing material that looked like wallpaper, and from there they collaged furniture, flooring, things that they want to put in the room.

“It gave them choices,” she continued, “but it promoted socialization among the residents. On that and many other projects, they work with each other, interact, and provide positive feedback. It’s a really nice situation.”

Memories Are Made of This

While the work created by her students has helped to brighten the walls at Wingate, Creasia said that the Hampden Arts Guild also recognized the efforts she and her students have been making.

“They contacted us and wanted to display some of the work that we do here,” she said. “We had an opening reception for the residents, and that made it really special. Then we brought that exhibit back here and put it up in the foyer. It gave my students recognition and really made them feel good, especially when they saw their work matted, framed, and hung on the wall.”

Memories in the Making is the name of a creative-arts program started by the California chapter of the National Alzheimer’s Assoc. Both Creasia and Alter-Muri said that an exhibition at Springfield College last summer was this area’s first foray under the auspices of that organization. There was work on display from students and faculty of the college, as well as nine assisted-living facilities from the Greater Springfield area.

Memories in the Making supports the work of patients with AD, and then organizes similar exhibits in fine-art settings. Currently, the West Coast chapter prints an annual calendar showcasing the work of its artists.

In the studios at Springfield College, Alter-Muri said the field is rapidly becoming more successful among students, making this treatment an increasingly indelible mark for both patients and caregivers.

“The Alzheimer’s Assoc. is reaching out to our students,” she said. “And at this year’s American Art Therapy Assoc. meeting, one of the major speakers talked about the Memories in the Making program.

“I think you will see art therapy becoming more widely known,” she continued. “It’s an important field in that it can help so many different people in so many different ways.”

And those are words to live by.