Staying Connected With Expressive Arts Activities
How do we stay connected to people we care for even when they may seem lost to us? How do we continue to experience those magical moments of engagement? I share those answers in my new book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together.
Throughout my mother’s dementia, I searched for ways to feel close to her, whether it was sitting shoulder to shoulder leafing through magazines, gazing into her eyes and smiling, or singing old songs together.
Research shows that even when the rational mind doesn’t function as it once did, creativity can flourish. As I interviewed dozens of experts in areas of movement, music, art, and more, I saw how expressive arts can boost energy, increase social interactions, add meaning to life, and keep us close to those we care about.
“Activities allow us to rediscover the person who may be hiding behind his or her deficit.” says Cameron Camp, PhD, co-author of A Different Visit.
Cameron believes that a good activity should be easy, mutually pleasurable, appropriate for ability, age, and gender, imbued with some meaning, and have neither deadline nor pressure.
Connecting in the Land of Dementia is full of just those kinds of activities.
You don’t need any special artistic talent to take part. Whether you’re a friend, family or professional care partner, you can enjoy incorporating these creative ideas into your time together. (Note: The stories in this piece are true, but I have changed people’s names for privacy.)
Recreate a Favorite Atmosphere
“Shall we spend the afternoon at the beach?” Harry asks his wife Madeline.
A smile lights her face and she nods. It’s a gloomy day in Yorkshire, England, and Madeline has been staring outside all morning. Harry can feel her restlessness.
“Let’s bring a picnic,” Harry says.
“Lemonade,” Madeline says.
“Yes. Do you want cheese or tuna fish sandwiches?”
Together they go into the kitchen and Harry makes their lunch. Then he packs up a hamper and leads Madeline to their screened in porch. The deck chairs are waiting. A bright beach umbrella leans against the wall. He turns on the CD player and the soothing sound of rolling ocean waves blends in with backyard birdsong. He rubs a little sunscreen on Madeline’s hands, the kind she used when they were dating so many years ago. He helps her take off her shoes and pushes over a container of sand. It’s warm and dry and Madeline wiggles her toes in it. Though they are miles from the seashore, by using creativity and imagination, they still enjoy the feeling of being at the beach.
“Without spending a lot of money, you can fashion an amazing atmosphere in a small space,” says Claire Craig, PhD, co-author of Creativity and Communication in Persons with Dementia: A Practical Guide. “There are no limits: I’ve seen indoor jungles, beaches, formal plantings, and forests.”
Bring The Exercises Home
Months ago, when her sister Bess moved in, Emily gave up her morning workout. She wanted to help Bess, who struggled with cognitive impairment, get used to her new surroundings. But now Emily includes Bess in her movement routine. To accommodate Bess’s energy level, Emily exercises midmorning instead of break-of-dawn. To keep herself fit, she does each exercise first, then performs it in a simpler way as she talks Bess through it. When Emily does her push-ups, Bess sits in a chair and pushes herself out of the chair, using her hands. Emily does her leg lifts, then holds hands with Bess, inviting her to step over an imaginary rock with her right foot, then step with her left foot. During the process, she compliments Bess for her efforts.
She ends with a short visualization that invites positive thinking.
“Any movement is good movement,” says Michael Berg, who works as Life Enhancement coordinator at Highgate Senior Living in Bellingham, Washington. “When you use the body in new ways, you also use the mind in new ways.”
Activate The Dormant Artist
“What color do I put here?” Margaret asks, her voice anxious. She looks uncertainly at artist and facilitator Shelley Klammer, who is next to her in the care home’s dining room.
“Which color do you prefer?” Shelley asks.
Margaret wrings her hands and does not answer. She is living with dementia and has been recently rescued from a neglectful situation.
“Do you like green or purple?” Shelley asks, pointing to the two colors of paint.
Margaret nods toward the purple. Shelley dabs a brush in the purple watercolor and demonstrates how to paint within a pre-drawn outline of a flower. She hands the brush to Margaret, who copies her example.
“What color shall we use next?” Shelley asks.
Margaret points to the red. Shelley continues painting with Margaret for several sessions, until Margaret begins picking out her own colors. For Margaret, this one-on-one invitation to make art evolves into a passion for painting within pre-drawn familiar patterns such as animals, flowers, and trees. Margaret smiles the whole time she makes art.
“Research is now recognizing how making art soothes, and engages people with dementia,” Shelley says.
Shelley, the author of the e-book How to Start An Art Program for the Elderly. worked for years in Canada’s largest therapeutic art studio with adults who were living with late stage dementia or other physical/mental issues. Some of the benefits she witnessed include increased attention spans, enhanced self-awareness and self-esteem, memory stimulation, and the calming of anxiety disorders.
“Imagery often expresses what words cannot,” Shelley says. “A pre-drawn structure allows an anxious painter to relax into the process. Painting familiar subject matter can help a person with dementia settle into a pleasurable, meditative state.”
Cook Up Connections
Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, sees food as a great equalizer, something anyone can enjoy regardless of abilities.
“It doesn’t matter what you can remember,” she says. “With cooking, you have to be in the present moment.”
Even after Rebecca’s father was diagnosed with dementia, he remained an appreciative and adventurous eater and one of Rebecca’s great joys was cooking for and with him. She often invited her father to help her in the kitchen, and he liked tearing up herbs, adding ingredients into the pot, and stirring risotto, one of his favorite dishes. He then enjoyed sitting at the table, sharing the meal.
For a sensory, yet practical, culinary connection, Rebecca suggests recipes and experiences that involve texture, aroma, sight, and taste.
“Involve your partner in tasting and giving feedback,” she suggests. “When a dish is nearly finished, offer a spoonful and ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how does this taste? What do you think it needs—more sweet, more salt, maybe a touch of lemon?”
Bask in the Benefits
You can see and feel the difference that such projects make. For people living with dementia, their sense of wellbeing and purpose improves, their agitation and depression can diminish. Plus, exploring activities together adds a sense of purpose and discovery to the day.