Communicating & Engaging Imagination: Why the Arts Are Key to Dementia Care

Anne Basting | October 5, 2015

When you receive a serious medical diagnosis, it can feel as though that diagnosis replaces your identity. You begin to think, “I am no longer myself — instead, I am what my diagnosis tells me I am.”

arts and dementia care

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Don’t get trapped by this kind of thinking. Even when we carry a diagnosis, we have to continue to live our lives as we normally would. We are more than our diseases and care plans.

People who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease can live as long as 20 years. With that in mind, family, professional caregivers, and community members need tools to ensure that people with Alzheimer’s can be more than their disease and live their life to the fullest.

One of these tools is the arts.

A symbolic and emotional communication system, the arts don’t rely on linear memory and rational language. Rather, the arts engage our intuition and imagination. Their building blocks for expression are movement, gesture, words, patterns, sounds, color, rhythm, texture, and smell—to name just a few. As access to rational language falters, a person’s imagination can soar. With the arts, caregivers can stay connected and foster the “person-hood” of someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Memory vs. Imagination

You don’t need to be an artist to use the arts for expression: these tools are available to everyone. Over the last 20 years, I have encouraged care partners to communicate with people who have dementia through creativity. The shift from expecting and correcting memory to opening and connecting through imagination can be profound, especially for family members. After years of distance, the arts can help families rekindle an emotional connection with their loved one.

In one workshop for caregivers, I was demonstrating how they could use open-ended questions to free up the imagination of people with dementia. I suggested the caregivers ask things like: “What would you like to name the person in this picture?” versus, “What’s his name?” Or, “When would you like this story to take place?” versus, “What year is it?”

I noticed that one gentleman in the workshop got a worried look on his face, so I asked him if he was okay. He replied, “Yes, I’m just realizing that I’ve been driving my wife crazy for the last two years—insisting that she remember things.”

That man was Charlie Farrell. Since then, he has gone on to create the Carolyn Farrell Foundation to help family caregivers use the arts to communicate with loved ones with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Techniques to Help Your Loved One Be More than a Diagnosis

So, how can you learn these techniques? There are a variety of resources available to families and my own work with improvisation and creative storytelling has free online storytelling tools at timeslips.org.

Currently, the National Center for Creative Aging is at work on a series of video modules that share poetry, music, movement and visual art techniques.

Some long-term care communities have arts or music therapists in-house, or partner with local arts organizations.

But the arts are more than a program to be added to an otherwise hectic day in the life of long-term care staff or family caregivers. They are a communication system that opens our emotions and invites us to share who we are with each other.

Related Articles

Music Therapy: Improving the Well-Being of Seniors

Debunking Alzheimer’s Myths to Improve St. Louis Senior Care

How to Keep Your Senior Care Network Strong

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