Caring for a loved one with dementia is a task that can be both emotionally challenging and physically draining. It’s a complicated medical condition, affecting a person’s ability to perform everyday activities, and impacting their memories and personality. Yet this is the reality for the families and loved ones of close to 50 million people, in a world where someone develops dementia every three seconds.
Given the startling statistics, it’s clear that the topic of how to best care for someone with dementia is only going to become more pressing and insistent as time goes on. In an effort to take a tentative, design-focused step in this direction, I’m exploring the way in which caregivers can use art to make life a little easier for those with the condition. Read on to find out more.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is the name given to a whole range of symptoms which affect the brain, including memory loss, confusion, personality or behavior changes, and reduced concentration, to name but a few.
Dementia is progressive, meaning that after diagnosis, one can expect the initial symptoms to gradually get worse. At present, there is no known cure for dementia, though there are various medical drugs, treatments and lifestyle changes which can ease the severity of symptoms.
What’s the link between art and dementia?
In a nutshell, art and creativity can provide a useful way to help people with dementia communicate, express feelings, and ultimately, stay connected with others.
As Rachel Thompson, Admiral Nurse Professional and Practice Development Lead at Dementia UK, puts it, “pictures on walls in the home may offer a point of conversation and stimulation for families supporting someone with dementia.”
Engaging in art doesn’t require knowledge or memory, all it asks is for a person to be in the moment and to express what they’re feeling right then and there. With art, there is no right or wrong. As such, art can provide a safe space for people with dementia to interact and engage with others. In doing so, this can greatly enhance their quality of life, improving both their confidence and satisfaction levels.
In terms of actually creating art, Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, dementia specialist and founder of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care in British Columbia, notes how this may afford someone who has lost the ability to talk the opportunity to have their voice heard. “[The creative arts] may be one of the last ways they can express themselves. Sometimes, it’s a way to be part of a group – it’s a very social thing. It’s an opportunity to participate in an activity that otherwise they wouldn’t have done.”
It should also be noted that whilst dementia is not a curable disease, engagement with art can delay its onset.
As Dr. Gottlieb-Tanaka explains “We do think, and research supports it, that if we engage normal healthy seniors in the arts (visual or performative) before they are diagnosed with dementia, it may postpone the development of dementia by two years.”
So what kind of art is best?
Now this is the tricky part. As already noted, dementia is progressive. With dementia, nothing is constant, and over time, we may see changes in taste, object recognition and mood swings. This means that a person with dementia can one day absolutely love the art around them, yet wake up the very next morning and hate it.
Dr. Gottlieb-Tanaka recommends learning about the person’s likes and dislikes when they were considered in good health, and starting from there. “I recommend to stay with their taste and preferences for the visual arts until the person with dementia comments on the art pieces hanging on the walls. The best thing is to ask the person directly what they think. Best to present them with various styles and hear carefully what they have to say. But be ready for preferences to change even every day.”
“That being said, scary images are best to be avoided. From my experience, disjointed figures, such as Picasso’s work, may upset a person with dementia.”
Is there anything else to be aware of?
It should be remembered that art is a subjective matter. There is no one size fits all when it comes to art therapy and dementia. As such, caregivers should be prepared to see a range of reactions in response to creative engagement.
Thompson further notes that “it may also be of benefit for the family member to actively prompt attention and discussion of the pictures, as the person with dementia may lack the ability to initiate such discussions.” The idea of art easing dementia symptoms stems from a social rationale, requiring effort from both sides in order for it to work.
Show your support for the fight against dementia by taking the time to donate to The Society for the Arts in Dementia Care. All contributions, however small, are welcome. Find out more here. Alternatively, if you’re in the UK, head here to donate to Dementia UK.
Are you caring for a loved one with dementia? Has creative engagement with art helped them? Share your experience with us in our comments section below.