How Art and Music Can Help Caregivers Treat Dementia Patients

How Art and Music Can Help Caregivers Treat Dementia Patients

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Breakthrough therapy for caregivers and dementia sufferers offers hope

Being a caregiver for a loved one with dementia can be a heartbreaking job. And Solo Moms caring for a family member with dementia also face the stress of juggling the demands of being present for an afflicted loved one with the responsibilities unique to being a Solo Mom. Dementia care is emotionally, physically, and mentally draining, both when you’re with the afflicted and when you’re not present. Fortunately, a form of therapy has emerged that provides moments of grace and therapy for caregivers and dementia sufferers alike: art and music.

Art and music stimulate the brain in ways that language does not. Listening to music and creating art can trigger positive responses in Alzheimer’s patients even when attempts to engage in conversation are unsuccessful. Singing to a patient can trigger not only cognitive responses but also memories thought lost to the ravages of the disease, according to Suzanne Hanser, PhD, department chair of music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston and former program director of San Francisco’s Alzheimer’s Association.

As Hanser explains in an article for the websiteAs Hanser explains in an article for the website, A Place for Mom (an organization that helps families of seniors find ideal living situations based on individual needs and budgets), “There are certain areas of the brain that are still relatively intact even as a progressive disease like Alzheimer’s takes effect. In particular, the limbic system. And specifically, the hippocampus, which retains long-term memory and has retained emotional impact. Music triggers these long-term memories. So we see people who have not spoken in years begin to sing songs that they knew in their early teens and early adulthood.”

Singing songs familiar to dementia patients also creates a sense of connection between a caregiver and a patient, especially songs that have special meaning to both. Hanser suggests that caregivers get patients involved in making music, too, which activates a part of the brain that controls balance and movement.

“Music therapists may begin with passive listening but soon we engage the person so there’s more parts of the body involved,” she says.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, caregivers and patients have taken music therapy to another level through the Giving Voice Chorus. Launched in 2014, the chorus is believed to be the only community choir in the United States dedicated to Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers, offering participants opportunities to sing songs and learn vocal techniques and ensemble skills. Cofounders Mary Lenard and Marge Ostroushko formed the chorus after learning of the positive effects of music therapy. And, as noted on the chorus’s website, Giving Voice Chorus gives caregivers and patients a sense of community.

Meanwhile, art therapy also can stimulate new memories and positive emotional responses, as well as provide patients with a way to communicate, such as through an art brush.

Similar to music, art stimulates parts of our brains in ways that language does not. And as reported in USA Today, art, dance, and music can act as emotional balms for patients and help manage the aggressive behavior that can come with dementia. As with music, creating art also helps the caregiver. Painting, drawing, and sculpting together can relieve the stress of looking after a loved one—and even create a bond, however fleeting.

A recently created documentary, I Remember Better When I Paint, was broadcast throughout the United States to raise awareness for the power of art and other creative activities in helping Alzheimer’s patients. In a trailer for the film, Judy Holstein, former director at CJE SeniorLife for adult day services, discusses the distinct value of art activities.

“Creative arts are an avenue to tap into a nonverbal, emotional place in a person,” she says. “When they are given paint, markers, any kind of medium for art making, and their hands are involved, and their muscles are involved, things are tapped in them that are genuine, active, and alive. . . . People still have imaginations intact all the way to the very, very end of their progressive disease.”

Art and music combined together can result in breakthrough experiences because, apparently, songs have a way of stimulating associations with images and colors. According to art therapist Angel Duncan, creating personal song playlists for dementia patients has not only calmed mood swings but also inspired patients to paint. She relates to MUSIC & MEMORY (a nonprofit organization that brings music into the lives of the elderly or infirm) the story of how a personal playlist unleashed a creative spurt from a dementia patient, a woman who was so agitated that she was assaulting caregivers.

According to Duncan, “She sat with her headphones on, dancing in her seat, smiling. When I asked what color the music was, she said, ‘Well, the beginning of it is red.’ She grabbed the brush and painted a little red tree.”

The Alzheimer’s Association offers several tips for engaging in art and music therapy. For instance, as noted on its website, when you select music to play for a patient, it’s best to identify music that you know to be familiar and enjoyable to the person, and to let the patient choose the music if possible. It’s also important to avoid sensory overload by eliminating any competing noises, such as the television. When it comes to art, the association recommends avoiding any projects that seem childlike and building conversation into the project. You can find more tips here.

Singing, drawing, painting, and other forms of artistic expression won’t stop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, but they just might open up new avenues of communication and bring meaning to both you and your loved ones.

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

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