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Art Therapy

Making the olderl person in your life feel like they really matter

Finding meaning and value in a culture obsessed by youth can be challenging for aging individuals and their caregivers. However, more studies are finding that the creative spirit is active throughout decline and loss. Nurturing this aspect of the psyche can help older adults navigate their changing world and reclaim their self-worth and value.
One way of thriving through the arts is to pursue already developed passions. If you want proof that arts and culture can turn the golden years into a happy, productive time, check out the National Center for Creative Aging website (creativeaging.org). There are endless stories of individuals earning advanced degrees, performing music, creating visual art, and marrying their “last” spouse in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.
Most senior community centers encourage group participation in art, music, dancing, poetry and lectures on topics like politics and culture. Senior Theatres, where seniors perform, are thriving. A survey of 142 Senior Theatre companies by Art Age publications showed that almost 75 percent of them had been around for 1-12 years, with many of them now for-profit.
Art therapy is being used around the country as a way of touching the inner spirit of seniors at a profound level. It is making art within a professional relationship. The therapist can provide pathways to the person’s innate creativity and respond to them. The powerful act of creating art stimulates creative parts of the brain that can result in improved mental and physical health and increased activity levels. It can provide distraction from pain, provide emotional support and social engagement, and build connections and relationships.
It can also be a way to reach people with cognitive
decline. In Ruth Abraham’s book, When Words Have Lost Their Meaning, she says, “Art therapy is powerful because it bypasses the dominant verbal aspects of the brain function. Despite the limitations, the dementia patient is nevertheless a person with an interior subjective world. The afflicted person can voice this inner world through the use of art materials.”
According to resources on the senior care website parentgiving.com, “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.” This language of symbols can be used to communicate when verbal skills break down.
Caregivers can use the principles and materials of art
therapy at home. Even untrained, just using some of the methods at home may provide some engagement with a person with Alzheimer’s. Watercolors for painting, crayons and coloring books for adults and sculpting are some excellent options, resulting in a more creative, pleasant time spent together. It is important to remember that this is a two-person project, not just a way of keeping someone busy.
Many art museums around the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, are offering special programs to Alzheimer’s
patients and their caregivers due to the overwhelming evidence that art can be beneficial to both.
The end stage of life presents significant new challenges. Joan Cantwell, MA, CJEA teaches introduction to art therapy at
DePaul and Dominican Universities and provides expressive art therapy services for Horizon Hospice and Palliative Care. She says, “Art therapy is an excellent addition to a holistic approach to palliative care and hospice services. The goal is to improve the patient’s quality of life at the end stage of life. It’s not going to fix anyone but it provides a powerful vehicle for capturing a
person’s life story and, if needed, art can help them communicate issues, emotions or conflicts. Art provides a safe place for powerful emotions and can help people to feel like they really matter, despite the illness.”
In her book, 21 Peaceful Nurses Essay on a Spiritually Guided Practice, she writes, “On a visit I had to a nursing home, a well-traveled retired professor with Alzheimer’s disease and I made a collage of all the places he had lived in is life. We hung the collage near his bed so he could see it often. After looking at
pictures of China, India, Hawai and Japan, he smiled and said “I had forgotten what a great career I had. What a spectacular life”
“He felt like he really mattered, if even for that moment and it helped validate his life accomplishments as his memory faded,” she says.

Published: April 14, 2012
Issue: Spring 2012 Issue