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Art Therapy for Dementia Care: Benefits, Process, and Techniques

Two adults are holding each others hands. It's a close up of their hands and used to show how art therapy for dementia can be supportive for clients

Dementia can be a scary or heavy topic to discuss, but there is space for hope through art. As we continue to learn more about what dementia is and how individuals living with dementia can be best supported, research is finding that art therapy has helped manage challenging symptoms including impacts on cognitive functions, mood, and overall quality of life and wellbeing. This article hopes to shed some light on the importance of emotional and psychosocial support for individuals living with dementia and how creative arts therapies can help. 

The term ‘dementia’, describes a set of symptoms often characterised by changes in mood, memory loss, and cognitive impairments such as functions of thought, problem-solving, and language. Dementia can be a scary thing to talk about for individuals, families, and as a community as these conditions can bring up fears surrounding the impacts of the loss of memory and control. Fortunately, research continues to find new ways to support individuals and their families through creative interventions, showing how art can help those coping with dementia in various ways. 

Benefits of Art Therapy for Dementia Care

Art creates connection

Art has the power to transmit a universal message that can be appreciated across cultures and throughout human civilization. Having a designated time and space for individuals to create art helps build meaningful connections between people, which can assist with increasing resiliency, manifesting associations to important memories, and improving non-verbal communication to help individuals and their families better understand what support is needed.

You are in control of what you make

Art can also honour one’s right to choice and uphold a sense of autonomy as the individual can decide how to interact with the art materials and what they want to make. Art therapy fosters self-agency and self-expression by welcoming each person to create without fear of judgment, pressure, or expectations. Remember, when it comes to art therapy - there is no right or wrong way to create!

Art safely holds emotions outside of the body

Managing heavy or complex emotional impacts as a result of dementia can also be safely supported through art. Art helps to manage the effects on mood for individuals living with dementia by safely holding or containing heavy thoughts or feelings, as well as giving space for processing the changes in life or routine and providing a sense of relief from emotional weight, promotes relaxation, and releases tensions in the body. 

Art brings your focus to the here & now

Art therapy interventions will often incorporate elements of being ‘in the moment’ which can be beneficial in supporting individuals living with dementia by fostering reflective awareness, self-compassion, and inner resilience among individuals and their caregivers. This greater emphasis on the potential of more holistic, mindful, psycho-socio-spiritual care also provides more opportunities for communication between people with dementia, their caregiver(s), and their healthcare team, helping to improve overall healthcare services.

A close up of a persons hands covered in paint. Paint is a medium used often in art therapy for dementia to help them work through the creative-therapeutic process

The Creative-Therapeutic Process 

Art Therapy is a distinct form of non-pharmacological interventions used to support individuals with dementia, through a dynamic, humanistic, and social understanding of art, therapy, and people. Creative therapies offer a holistic approach alongside conventional medical treatment to support individuals in managing their condition or illness, and honouring who they are as a person. These creative and social interactions fostered in art therapy positively correlate with an individual's well-being and physical health which are essential for the retention of personhood; meaning “a standing or status that is bestowed upon one human being, by others, in the context of relationship and social being. It implies recognition, respect, and trust.” 

Thus, art therapy is facilitated through person-centered therapeutic activities that aims to engage individuals in social and artistic processes while providing a calm and supportive environment. Art therapy involves developing an ongoing care plan co-created between the individual and their multi-disciplinary care team. In this way, art therapy can be an effective therapy treatment that allows individuals to become more involved in their care plan, affirming the individual’s sense of self and indicating the potential for positive objective biomedical treatment outcomes.

A table with wooden containers that have different colours of paint. One is brown, the other is green, and the last is red. Paint is often used in art therapy for dementia

What is an Example of an Art Therapy Technique?

Art therapy involves sensory and intellectual stimulation, activated through creative engagement and art-making activities targeting cognitive, motor, emotional, and interpersonal functions of health and well-being. Art therapy also serves as a non-verbal expressive medium, offering insights into the patient’s ‘inner world’ through a three-way process between the patient, the therapist, and art materials (object or image). 

For example, individuals living with dementia can be at risk for increased frustration, fear, or other upsetting feelings as a result of difficulties remembering parts of their lives and who people are. One art therapy directive that could be helpful is creating a memory box or book that can hold significant memories. The purpose of this box is to help them establish who they are and keep memories for them. This box then stays with them, decorated by the colours and symbols that bring forth meaning, and spark special memories that can help remind them of who they are and what/who is important to them.

This box could include:

  • Photos of loved ones or significant memories

  • Small emblems or items from childhood

  • Written notes or cards

  • Old records

  • Things that bring them joy or remind them of their passions

  • Small gifts or tokens from loved ones

There are so many ways that art and creative therapies can help support individuals living with dementia in complement to conventional medical care. Altogether, this research brings forth great hope for our community, reminding us all of how incredibly helpful non-pharmacological treatments can be and the potential we have to create. 

Want to learn more? Get in touch with the Miya Creative Care team and find local art therapy and other creative therapy resources near you.

Written by Mollia May.


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