Moving Beyond Memories: Connection Through Art

Art forms can be influential—they have the ability to evoke an emotional response, trigger long-term memories, and create special moments between people. These results can be beneficial to anyone, but especially for people living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia who may be unable to express themselves.

As dementia progresses and memory deteriorates, people often have difficulty communicating, may experience significant changes in their physical abilities, and may become moody, withdrawn, suspicious, or change their preferences and typical behaviors. These symptoms worsen over time, leading to frustration and a loss of hope in loved ones and caregivers wishing to maintain a relationship.

The benefits of art—whether it be stories, music, or paintings—can be achieved by sharing in these activities one-on-one with a loved one, but are also practiced through programs with certified professionals. The targeted programs detailed below offer opportunities for meaningful connections that may otherwise be difficult to achieve.

In today’s world, there are no highly effective medical treatments available for dementia, which make these programs all the more valuable. Utilizing these activities, both in individual and group settings, caregivers and loved ones can encourage socialization, collaboration, and engagement—and often develop a deeper understanding and more positive interactions with individuals struggling with dementia.

Many retirement communities offer these types of programs to help engage the lives of residents and provide an enhanced quality of care tailored to each individual.

Finding a connection without words

TimeSlips™ is a therapeutic storytelling tool that encourages people living with dementia to create and share stories together, which helps to strengthen their cognitive functions.

While TimeSlips focuses on using a picture to draw upon memories and creativity from participants, other programs, such as Music and MemorySM, uses the power of music to connect. Studies have shown that music touches all lobes of the brain, and can reach people at any stage of dementia.

Additional forms of artistic expression and appreciation, including painting and drawing, have been proven to produce similar benefits. Individuals living with dementia are often able to achieve levels of focus and engagement otherwise unattainable.

Telling stories together

In 1998, TimeSlips founder Anne Basting was curious about how reminiscing activities could help adults with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and began developing stories in group settings. Since its inception, TimeSlips has become an internationally recognized certification program with over 2,000 trained facilitators; free, custom storytelling software; staged plays inspired by the stories; and press recognition by NPR, Today Show, Chicago Tribune, and more.

During a TimeSlips session, a large photo is shown, and those participating are encouraged to share what they see as well as the smells, sounds, and other details they might associate with the image. The group’s observations are used to construct a story about the image, which is then read aloud to the group, allowing residents to recognize their contributions and share in a fun moment.

The benefits of personalized music

Musical appreciation and aptitude can remain as one of the last abilities for a person in the later stages of dementia, and favorite songs from the young adult years are most likely to elicit a positive response.

For individuals living with dementia, listening to favorite songs of the past can help them to:

  • Decrease agitation and distract from fear and anxiety
  • Connect with caregivers and loved ones in more meaningful ways, even when verbal communication is no longer possible
  • Reduce sundowning symptoms
  • Aid in reducing reliance on antipsychotic, antianxiety, and antidepressant medications

The Music and Memory program was founded in 2006 by Dan Cohen, MSW, a social worker in New York, who felt that if he ever lived in a retirement community, he would like to be able to listen to his favorite music from the ’60s. Over the next two years, Dan volunteered at nursing homes and provided residents with personalized iPods. The program has grown rapidly since then and is used in hundreds of communities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Engaging in these proven-effective techniques for connecting with a loved one with dementia can help produce more meaningful, positive, and enriching experiences—even as the disease progresses. When words fail, art still stands.


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