A thick paintbrush moves across a piece of drawing paper, and slowly an image begins to emerge. As the page is transformed so is the painter; she appears increasingly less agitated. The fledgling artist, who has dementia, is taking part in Memories in the Making, a national art program of the Alzheimer’s Association, sponsored by chapters across the country. The program helps people express their thoughts and emotions and share memories through painting, drawing and other creative projects.
“They may not seem to want to — or be able to — talk but can paint something that takes our breath away,” says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association. “In nurturing, calm, supportive settings, they sometimes have moments of clarity and express things that shock us all.”
These structured art programs help to give people with dementia “good moments, good hours and good days,” she says. “When people are engaged and supported, they probably sleep better, are less anxious, less depressed. The experience carries over to the rest of the day.” And, as Drew puts it, the goal is “happy humans.”
Susie Frey, a Denver-area art consultant, addresses one such group. “Vases and faces today,” she says. Each person gets a choice of subject. After they finish their paintings, Frey asks them details. “What’s your favorite color in it?” “Tell me about the fishing hole where you might have found this rainbow trout.” Answer: “It’s a secret.”
Losing language, gaining creativity
Many experts believe that art can help dementia patients express themselves. Creating art engages a different part of the brain than the part that we use for language.
Bruce L. Miller, M.D., professor of neurology and director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, has concluded from his research that creativity can still emerge in people with dementia, depending on where it most affects the brain.