An Art Therapist's Tips to Help People with Dementia
We’ve all had to adjust our lives in many ways to protect ourselves and others throughout the last few months. For anyone, the adjustments, uncertainly, added precautions can be challenging. For individuals with dementia and their caregivers, the difficulty is compounded by changes in availability of critical support systems, suspended in- home services, closed daycare centers, and stricter protocols in community residences. For people living with dementia, sudden changes in daily life and increased hygiene precautions can produce confusion, anxiety, and isolation that may be difficult to manage. Caregivers are also impacted by added responsibilities, concern for loved ones’ safety, and may experience difficulty explaining the pandemic to their family member in an understandable manner.
As an art therapist, I find introducing creative activities an excellent way to highlight one’s abilities and provide engaging experiences that can promote reminiscence, self-expression, communication, and meaningful interactions with caregivers, among other benefits. Even if your family member does not have previous creative experience, there are many ways to become involved.
To minimize stress and anxiety for all involved, there are some important communication tips to remember when caring for a loved one with dementia. Most important is to explain their current situation in terms that are easily understandable. Too many details can cause unnecessary stress and confusion. Rather, a simple explanation such as, “It’s safer for us to stay inside right now. We’ll do this together and it will be okay”, will be easier to grasp. Communicate simply and clearly with a reassuring tone. Demonstrate proper hand washing instead of verbally explaining and provide frequent reminders, perhaps written or visual cues, to help understanding.
One of the most important things you can do for a person with dementia is to keep their daily routine as consistent as possible. Engaging in meaningful activities can help a person feel safe and secure and also provide a sense of purpose. Taking a person-centered positive approach to care helps caregivers focus on the abilities a person has rather than their deficits. Basic art materials such as paper and a non-toxic glue stick can be used to create a collage with family photos or interesting magazine images. Individuals may also enjoy using adult coloring books, creating greeting cards to send to family and friends to lessen social isolation, or perhaps start a daily journal.
Sometimes, people with dementia may have difficulty initiating an activity, and if you help them get started, they’ll be able to continue on their own for a while. Recently, I worked with a woman, I’ll call Alice, who had dementia and struggled with feeling as if she didn’t have anything productive to do in her life. I introduced a small 5”X7” journal in which I had pre-drawn four-inch circles on a few pages and some colored pencils. I simply asked her to help me fill a circle with color. Initially, she needed some reassurance and as we sat and chatted, she began to become more involved in the process, choosing colors and creating patterns. Over time, Alice took ownership of the journal and it became a meaningful activity in her daily life. The journal provided Alice with a purpose in her day, and she began filling page after page. Eventually, Alice began inviting family members to work with her when they visited. The journal became a wonderful way to nurture relationships and create meaningful memories for Alice and her family.
Left: Entries in “Alice’s” journal from 2016-2017. Right: Collaborative drawing between “Alice” and family members marking her 90th birthday.
It’s important to remember, when encouraging creative engagement, the focus is on enjoyment and process, not achievement. Often asking for someone’s help, being mindful not to over tax a person, can fill an important void and provide a reason to engage. In addition, art making can be relaxing, reduce feelings of stress or anxiety, and can benefit individuals with dementia and caregivers alike. If your family member is living in a residence and you aren’t able to visit in person, think about sending them a journal or an adult coloring book and some colored pencils. If you are able to have a virtual visit, perhaps you could invite them to create along with you and have a bit of relaxation and stress relief for both of you. Once started, the opportunities are endless.
Margaret Carlock-Russo, EdD, LCAT(NY), ATR-BC, ATCS, is a board certified art therapist and licensed creative arts therapist, currently serving as the President of the American Art Therapy Association.
Margaret has over 24 years of experience as an art therapist working with individuals and groups. Much of her career has been spent working with people with health conditions or impairments learning disabilities and dementia. . Most recently, she has developed Chroma Soul Arts, an organization focused on providing community groups and retreats, addressing issues of aging, social connection, self-care, and wellness.
Margaret is also an associate faculty at Prescott College, coordinating their Expressive Arts Therapy Post Master’s Certificate Program.