Connecting with your Loved Ones through the Arts
It’s so upsetting to watch someone you love become isolated from the world due to dementia. They can be in isolation, even when they’re around family and friends. For me, I am on a continual quest to connect with my parents; to see a smile come across mom’s face, or get a laugh from dad. Those special little moments are treasures to me, and I am always looking for new treasures and ways to make more moments happen.
My quest got me interested in learning more about the creative arts and their ability to connect with people who have otherwise disengaged from the world. To that end, I spoke with some of the wonderful people at the Evanston, Illinois office of the Music Institute of Chicago’s Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA), and I hope you find what I learned interesting. ITA‘s mission is to provide, facilitate, develop and research therapeutic experiences using the creative arts process for special needs individuals, including persons with dementia.
If I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Working with clay during an art session at CJE’s (Council for Jewish Ederly) Adult Day Services, the art therapist from ITA suggested to my mom that the piece of clay she had flattened out looked like the strudel dough she used to make. With a bit of encouragement, mom started rolling the clay into a long tube, and then “cut” the clay tube into pieces of “strudel”. I was astonished and delighted. Mom was connecting with something!
My dad doesn’t want to go to the senior center, but at home he always lights up when he hears music. When he’s feeling down and I want to cheer him up, I turn on some old tunes and start to sing to him and he always joins in. Music helps me to connect with my dad.
So what is it about art, drama, music and dance that connects with people with dementia? According to Leslee Goldman, Director of Art Therapy at ITA, “persons with dementia need options, possibilities, and choices that they can’t make in other parts of their lives. They have lost a connection to their former lives and to the people in their lives. Creative art therapies can make those connections happen again”.
Leslee explained that there is no “correct approach” in the creative arts. In art, for example, being able to rip up a drawing and start over is freeing. There is no right or wrong color, brush or paper. “Art gives people a sense of pride and accomplishment. It gives them a sense of control and the chance to do it over,” she told me. It’s also less about the end product than it is about the process of creating it. “Art is about the experience. It’s about the sound, feeling, engagement with the materials and the persons who brought the materials. There are no expectations and no ways to be wrong. For a person with dementia to have that sense of control and accomplishment is a wonderful thing.”
I know from my experience with my dad that music is another creative art that connects well with persons with dementia. How often do you remember an event in your life by the music you were listening to at the time? During my observations at CJE’s Adult Day Services, seniors with dementia would start singing whenever they’d hear a word that triggers a song from their past. My dad does the same thing. Music moves people to sing because it connects them to the people they used to be…and still are!
ITA music therapist, Jeff Wolfe, delights in seeing how seniors with dementia connect with musical instruments. “Choosing an instrument makes them feel a certain way. Playing the drums or a flute makes them feel successful without talking, without having to be perfect. I’ll hand them their instruments and a beat develops, and then all of a sudden someone starts to sing, someone else gets up to dance. “During his sessions, Jeff will share what he knows about different genres of music to get a conversation going, and people will join in the conversation with words or through the instruments they’re playing.
Storytelling and improvisational drama are also very effective at making connections with dementia patients. ITA drama therapist Kate Dillingham recognized early on that holding a story in memory is difficult if not impossible for people with dementia. “In drama therapy, we use the imagination rather than the memory,” she said.
Kate always starts her sessions with things people can touch and hold onto. She’ll bring in a bag of pine cones, for example, and give one to each person. After they all agree that they’re holding pine cones, she’ll then invite them to say what else the pine cones might be. If someone says a bowling ball, she’ll talk about the weight of the bowling ball versus the pinecone, and everyone’s body posture will change as they hold the heavier object. Kate will turn the cardboard tubes from dry cleaning hangers into magic wands, and encourage people to use those wands to transform objects into anything they’d like them to be.
During the process of using their imaginations, they engage with the stories being told and they laugh and enjoy. “They come out of their shells. The connections to the world that they’ve lost along the way are renewed and that gives them the sense that they matter,” Kate told me.
In terms of dance, I’ve seen the seniors at Adult Day Services rise to their feet and dance with joy. They connect with the rhythm, they move their bodies, they dance with a partner, or they dance by themselves. Even my mom, who no longer can stand on her feet unassisted, danced sitting down one day. Her eyes lit up and I could tell she was connecting, not just to the prince of a man who held and swayed her hands to the music, but to life.
Our loved ones with dementia have lost a connection to their former lives and to the people in their lives. Creative arts therapy can do a phenomenal job of connecting with and bringing joy to the lives of these precious people. If your loved one’s nursing home or assisted living facility doesn’t sponsor these types of programs, I hope you’ll encourage them to do so. If your loved one resides at home, you can bring them to an adult day services facility that offers creative arts programs, or, you and other family members can try to connect with them through the arts at home. “Just take care not to bring your emotions into it,” Leslee Goldman warns. “Don’t take it personally if the connections don’t happen. But if you see joy, keep it going. Try to connect with joy.”
Learn more about the Institute for Therapy through the Arts at their website.
Also, check out this inspiring video about one Alzheimer’s patient’s fabulous artwork!