Alzheimer's blog

Alzheimer's stops where creativity begins

By Angela Lunde August 6, 2013

I am pleased to see the recent dialogue regarding complementary practices to improve the life of those living with dementia, as well as those who love and care for them. These practices and therapies include such things as aromatherapy, meditation, exercise, yoga, nutrition, acupuncture, as well as the creative arts — drawing, painting, pottery, music, art history, creative writing, storytelling, poetry, dance and movement, drama, and musical theatre, to name only some.

The late Gene D. Cohen, M.D., devoted much of the last decade and a half of his life to exploring the relationship between aging and creativity, helping us understand and believe that even when memory is diminishing, the capacity for imagination is still there.

Bruce L. Miller, M.D., Professor of Neurology at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Clinical Director of Aging and Dementia, has also been instrumental in shedding light on how creativity can be an important outlet for people living with dementia. His work and research acknowledge that creativity is an area of strength spared by the disease, and that for some persons with dementia their creative ability is even enhanced.

Sara Tucker, M.A, an art therapist and early stage services manager for the Minnesota-North Dakota Alzheimer's Association, says art stirs us in many ways. It has the ability to alter the mind, affect our behavior, emotions and our relationships with others. Art fosters health, communication and expression to promote the integration of physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning. For people living with Alzheimer's disease, this truly is important.

As an art therapist, Tucker knows firsthand what the arts can do for those living with Alzheimer's disease. She says, "I have seen people greatly benefit by actively engaging in the arts, both viewing and creating. I witnessed a group of women who created and shared their stories about getting older and living with this disease improve their self-image as part of the process of creating and storytelling."

A growing body of evidence is supporting much of Tucker's work and passion. A study from New York University and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) evaluated a program called "Meet Me at MOMA" to assess how viewing and engaging in artwork effects people with early-stage dementia. The results revealed fewer emotional problems during the week following a visit to the museum program, along with elevations in mood, an increase in social support, and elevated self-esteem.

Karen Weintraub wrote an article for the Boston Globe entitled," Is Art Therapy the Answer for Dementia?" In it, Weintraub notes that medications can't stop the disease's inexorable damage to the mind, but a musical walk down memory lane, a dance class, storytelling session, art project, or museum tour, can do more than offer pleasant diversion, they can improve a number of disease symptoms as well. Alzheimer's care sometimes focuses on what someone isn't doing and tries to fix it. The arts model looks at what they are doing and tries to build on that ability.

Creative expression is both healing and whole-making. An exceptional program called the ARTZ embraces the wholeness that is inherent in each person, regardless of a diagnosis. It believes that access to creative expression is essential to our human experience and is not lost in persons living with Alzheimer's.

The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) is dedicated to fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging, and to developing programs that build on this understanding. NCCA has launched the first of its kind directory of creative programs, including those that are specific to people living with Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. You can find this directory by searching Directory of Creative Aging Programs in America.

"I do not know what is going on, but it seems Alzheimer's stops where creativity begins."
-Person living with Alzheimer's disease after creating art

A heartfelt thank you to Sara Tucker for her contribution and inspiration for this article.

Aug. 06, 2013