Arts, Hearts, and Minds:

Music and Art in Dementia Care

Photographs by Cathy Greenblat, PhD

Artistic appreciation, interpretation, and expression through music, drawing, painting, poetry, drama, and imaginative story-telling reveal possibilies, often not sufficiently exploited, for concentration, communication and using imagination. They are most effective when used in ways that are both enjoyable and structured for the participants’ needs and capacities, but those capacities are too often underestimated.

Because music is processed in many areas of the brain, people with Alzheimer’s disease are often able to engage meaningfully in live music even when they have severe cognitive impairment. An activities director described participation in music programs to me as “Holding hands without touching.” Another friend, Dan-iel Kuhn, noted: “Music and song unlock lyrics, melodies, movement, dance, and every emotion, especially joy. If you do not sing, you are not communicating in a way that touches the soul. A good voice is not required.”

While musical entertainment and group singing can be very enjoyable, there are multiple gains when a skilled music therapist is at work. Many of them nowadays organize drum circles as part of their effort. Patients, family, staff, old, young, musically inclined and musically inexperienced —all can participate easily. The drum circle provides an opportunity to release pent up emotions, express oneself without words, and to have a good time. It also creates a powerful bonding experience.

Successful art therapy programs have been reported with people at the beginning of the disease and those at the most advanced stages. People with prior experience in artistic endeavors as well as those who have not previously engaged in them can profit from and enjoy the activities. Some programs have invited professional artists to work with day care or residential program patients, leading them in procedures, and guiding them into several hours of intense focus and creativity.

Museum visit programs for people with dementia are being developed around the world. In the best ones, participants are encouraged to discuss and interpret the artwork, not just to look and listen. Such programs open resources to people who are otherwise cut off from much of the cultural life of their communities.

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