Being in advertising, we understand the importance of the arts. Art is our livelihood. Creative design, writing, music and acting are all part of our day-to-day lives. But in the six years I have served on the board of the Nebraska Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, I have heard and read about a recurring theme.
The arts have the ability to transport seniors with dementia back to a world where they lived and functioned. Art represents one of the few opportunities for elderly folks to once again feel genuine joy.
I recently shared a video on Facebook from the BBC. The video featured a choreographer named Chris who is a weekly visitor to a memory unit in England. Each week, Chris goes through a series of dance/exercise steps and gets his audience up and moving. You can see the joy on their faces as they move around the dance floor. As one dementia patient puts it, “It’s a bit of a laugh, and it’s natural, if we didn’t do this we’d just sit around, sad for two hours.”
Chris believes that dancing is therapy for these folks. He notes that they may not remember him or his name from week to week, but they remember the dance moves and they get better at them.
On a similar note, a recent article by Beth Thomas Hertz states that “art can provide a way for people with dementia to express themselves even after their memories and words have begun to fade away.” She claims that “art mixes tactile activities with emotion, engaging neuropathological pathways in a different way.” And when dementia patients engage in the creation of art, there are certain techniques that benefit different symptoms. For example, weaving can help with sequencing challenges and working with 3-D mediums like sculpting improve struggles with spatial issues.
Once a patient is lost to the depths of dementia, it is difficult and usually unpredictable to get a glimpse of the person they once were; and eventually it becomes impossible. With an outside stimulus such as interacting with various art forms the transformation can be magical.
I lost my mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s this past October. At her funeral and the dinner following, I heard multiple stories of how Mom would come alive when she heard music and so enjoyed dancing with all the men in her elderly care facility. Several of the folks at the funeral commented on how they missed her exuberant spirit on dance nights.
My father-in-law, who must now use a walker to get around, even remarked wistfully that Mom’s caregiver would take her to the dance parties, and the other residents never even realized she was married. She was there to dance.
There are wonderful arts programs for dementia patients springing up all over the world, and while our ardent hope is to rid the world of this cruel disease, in the meantime, shouldn’t we immerse these patients in a world of visual art and music to make every waking moment of their existence as joyful as possible?