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Art as Mechanism of Expression When Verbal Skills Fail

When Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia cause a loved one to lose the ability to speak, the lack of communication may become frustrating to the family members and, presumably, to the patient. Researchers have found that art can be used to give the patient a means of self expression when verbal skills fail. Through art therapy, or art psychotherapy, persons whose language skills have been impaired are still able to express their feelings through the language of images. The person may generate these images through drawings and colorings, or through collages of images culled from magazines, or through constructs of colored or textured figures and shapes. Alternatively, the person may be encouraged to respond to a visual-art dialogue initiated by an art therapist, who may select or create the first image to start the nonverbal conversation.
“Verbal skills eventually fail in people with dementia. Researchers believe art therapy can help patients express themselves when this happens.”
Art therapy operates on the premise that each individual uses color, line, and shape in a manner closely linked to his or her unique self. Individual personality is expressed by arranging art materials in meaningful patterns unique to the creator. Art therapist Elizabeth Cockey says art therapy can be used to improve quality of life both for patients with dementia and for those who care for them. The whole brain is stimulated to work in the creative state, as the person tries to paint, construct, sculpt and in so many ways create art. Cockey says that even as art therapy stimulates the temporal lobe of the brain it also induces the use of motor skills as the person manipulates things with the hands. The important thing to realize, though, is that there are two people involved — the patient and the person providing care, such as the family member. It is not a matter of giving the patient some paint and paper and then leaving the room. It is a matter of staying with the patient and starting a conversation, albeit nonverbal. By engaging in art projects with the dementia patient, family members and close friends can establish a connection with the loved one. Participating in visual art experiences can be beneficial, as well, to those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A number of museums have set up special programs for these individuals and their caregivers. While Alzheimer’s and dementia ravage the portions of the brain that have to do with memory and planning complex tasks, the portions of the brain involved in emotion and in aesthetic appreciation remain intact for much longer. It is theorized that looking at paintings and sculpture activates systems that are preserved and are widely connected with other cerebral areas, resulting in globally stimulating the brain. Researchers have seen an amelioration of depressive symptoms, improved cognition and increased sociability among those participating in these programs.