Alzheimer's blog

Creative expression helpful to those with dementia

By Angela Lunde August 24, 2010

"The world is but a canvas to the imagination."
- Henry David Thoreau

Not long ago, the topic of creativity and dementia came up. This is an area of great interest. Each of us is creative in some way; it may be cooking, gardening, dancing, poetry, music, inventing, decorating, fashion, drawing, writing, storytelling, pottery or painting just to name some.

Dr. Gene Cohen, who passed away last year, was the first director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, where he was a professor of health care sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He was well known and respected for his creativity and aging studies. He said "the inherent capacity for creative expression exists throughout the entire lifecycle." His research has lead to the findings that brain plasticity (the brain's ability to change throughout life and form new connections) is present in older individuals and is thought to promote creativity.

Dr. Bruce Miller of the University of California at San Francisco has been a key person in drawing attention to the creative abilities in some individuals with frontotemporal dementia. He has pioneered research recognizing that degeneration in the left side of the brain may limit language but may actually enhance and release musical or artistic abilities. His work moved him to realize just how much creativity exists in dementia patients.

"Even though our brains age, it doesn't diminish our ability to create," he said.

Over the past decade, more and more research has demonstrated the benefits of the arts for older persons especially those with cognitive decline such as memory loss due to Alzheimer's, as well as other causes of dementia. At a forum held at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in November 2006, leading researchers acknowledged that although more research was needed in the area of creativity, the benefits of creativity for those impacted by dementia were undeniable.

Some of the benefits suggested include: positive emotional responses, reduced agitation, greater social interaction, improved cognitive processes, functional improvements, increased food intake, greater physical strength and balance, improved mood and attention span, reduced stress (caregivers and receivers alike) and improved quality of life.

With a disease like Alzheimer's that limits verbal expression and communication, creativity is way to fill that void. When words fail, a work of art or music, or the movement of a dance can tell a story, express an emotion, recreate a memory and serve as a vehicle of expression.

I've witnessed firsthand the facial expressions of persons with dementia engaged in a creative activity. Their joy, laughter, pride, sense of peace and calm are universal states of expressing fulfillment. It seems clear that art and creativity can be an emotional release when other means of self expression are lost or misunderstood.

In a yoga class I teach for persons with mild cognitive impairment, I see creative expression through movement. Students follow both verbal and visual cues and are supported in knowing that their pose, movement and flow is exactly the way it is suppose to be.

This form of creative expression can foster a sense of calm, self esteem and acceptance. And as long as we (caregivers, family and friends) play a role in getting a person with dementia started in a creative process, we've tapped into their retained abilities to express.

"To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak."
- Indian Proverb

Aug. 24, 2010