Managing Dementia With Art Therapy

A woman with dementia interacting with others

The transition from baby to teenager to adult to elderly is a tremendous journey filled with countless moments such as experiencing true love, first job, graduation, the birth of kids, and the death of family and loved ones. Such that finally, in the golden years of life, all that is expected of elderly people is to relive and recount these moments while enjoying a peaceful life. What happens if after all those years on this earth those moments can’t be remembered or if you can’t even remember your own family? These are but a couple of the nightmarish realities that dementia sufferers reside in. This nightmarish reality can be reduced with the use of medicine, but this comes with a price, as these medicines can have side effects. There is an alternative method that comes with no side effects, however. Art therapy can help to manage dementia since it can help to alleviate psychological symptoms and improve the quality of care given to them.

Dementia patients suffer from anger, depression, and sadness with severe mood swings between these. Not being able to properly express their emotions can lead to a decrease in their quality of life. Painting is an outlet which dementia patients can use to express their emotions. Kathleen B. Kahn-Denis published a paper entitled, "Art Therapy with Geriatric Dementia Clients", where she states that the reason why art is so helpful to dementia patients is because of the sensual and evocative nature of the art medium. She further states that "art can access feelings and bypass cognition through the sensual nature of the color and qualities of the paint."

Furthermore, Qiu- Yue Wang and Dong- Mei Li, two Chinese scientists that published a paper called "Advances In Art Therapy For Patients With Dementia," stated that "the negative emotions of the patients are significantly reduced when the patients have an increased interest and obtain a certain sense of accomplishment through completing artworks." The freedom to express combined with the joy of accomplishment effectively reduces negative emotions found in dementia patients. As a positive consequence, it improves their mood and fosters positive emotions which can improve their quality of life.

Being able to better understand the state of their patients' mind allows for nurses to properly assess their patients, which allows for the appropriate care to be given to them. This can be achieved through verbal and non-verbal communication, but this is often diminished in dementia patients. The correct stimuli can propagate verbal interaction between the patient and the nurse. Through patients’ art, nurses would be able to notice subtle changes in their patients. Judith Ward published a paper called, "Art Therapy And Brain Dysfunction In A Patient With A Dementing Illness," studying the progression of dementia in a patient named Mel. What she found was that as the illness became worse, Mel’s art deteriorated as well. For example, in figure drawings, Mel drew arms originating from the head and ears within the face. Additionally, Kathleen B. Kahn-Denis' study, discussed a female dementia patient. The woman had expressive aphasia. She could understand language but couldn’t verbally express herself and could only speak a few words. Drawing was her means of expression and one day she was behaving very restless and irritable. She then drew a sad face, and Kathleen asked her if she was sad and she replied, “Yes.” Kathleen, through the painting, was able to see how the woman was feeling, and she passed this information onto the nurse. When the nurse carried the woman to a hospital for a regular check-up, it was then discovered she had an infection which was the likely the cause of her mood.

Now, imagine that a person has to correct 60 examination papers in an hour. No matter how it is done, the same level of care and due diligence would not be given to each paper, which could potentially lead to skewed marks. This same instance can be applied to nurses’ quality of care. Nurses who have to take care of a lot of patients will not be able to provide each of them with the same level of care. A possible solution is to just increase the number of nurses or just reduce their burden. Art therapy can provide the latter. Qiu- Yue Wang and Dong- Mei Li in their paper mentioned a study authored by Shinichiro et al. entitled, "Effect Evaluation of Recreational Coloring Carried Out at Pay Nursing Home." What Shinichiro et al. found, was that after a 12-week session of coloring activity, the 5 patients they studied showed decreased instances of wandering about, calling out for no reason and most importantly their sleeping periods increased. These aspects which were improved on would be beneficial to nurses. Instead of having to be dealing with patients constantly wandering about or calling for the nurses only to forget what they wanted, they can now either use that time to rest or deal with a more severe patient.

It would be unwise to only use art therapy on a dementia patient, as it is not as effective as medicine, but when used in conjunction with medicine and other therapy such as music and dance, improvements can be realized in these patients lives.

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