Art is for Everyone…Right? The Answer May Surprise You.

11887988_10207616800599138_2987643488951955854_nWhat Recreation Staff & Caregivers Should know about Creating Art with People Living in the late stages of Alzheimer’s

I realize this is a topic in need of discussion after receiving inquiries about the challenges of creating art with people living with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  As an art therapist and consultant, I visit all types of senior settings and interact with staff members and witness these challenges on a daily basis.

So what about art and how does it fit in?

Can’t anyone in long term care benefit from art?  The answer truthfully is no.

According to Viktor Lowenfeld, Scribbling is the first stage we all go through in our artistic development.  This however does not occur until about 2-4 years of age.  When people digress into the late stage of the disease process, their brains can no longer recognize an art material. It may be consumed as food. This would not be a once in a while occurrence, rather it is the person who consistently is unable to recognize or connect function with any material that is in their hand. I refer to this as pre-art  (pre-scribbling) and it is in this very late stage that an expectation of artistic expression or even art exploration is unrealistic.

This is not to say we should infantilize them…they are adults!  However, we must recognize and acknowledge that the brain is no longer able to make connections that are needed in utilizing art materials in their own creative process.

But I thought art is good for everyone?

Yes, art is an amazing way to engage people in very profound and personal ways.

It can be a means of expression when the ability to verbally express oneself is limited.  Studies have shown that art therapy is capable of enhancing brain function, socialization, and even communication in people who are living with dementia.

Art is INCREDIBLY helpful in giving expression and voice to thoughts, feelings and stories.  It offers a better quality of life for people in various stages of Alzheimer’s…That is until they can no longer recognize an art material and perhaps mistake it for food and/or cannot remain alert to participate in the art task.

This is not to say that as people decline in the disease process, we should stop using exploratory materials, showing artistic images and discussing topics that once interested this person!

Pressures mounting

I often feel there is a certain amount of pressure in long term care to make sure everyone is “occupied” and kept “busy”.  This is especially true when there are many behavioral issues (often occurring simultaneously) as a result of dementia.  This ideology is based on appearance and quantity, but certainly is not therapeutic or quality care.

Very often I have seen staff members wheel people up to a table who were completely inappropriate for the art task and proceed to make art for them and even sign the senior’s name.

I was an activity director for many years, I get it.  It is our job to meet challenges, keep everyone happy (as if this is even possible!), find strengths and make sure everyone is engaged.  However, things may need to be viewed differently and changes should be made to accommodate the best interest of the seniors.

Ask yourself: Who is benefitting from the art program?

Is the art for them or for you?  Be very clear with yourself and with administration.  Even families may not fully be ready to understand and accept the disease progression of their loved one.

What are the needs of the seniors?  What would be in their best interest?  Who would truly benefit from the art process (note I said process and not the end product). We should not lose sight of the fact that it is their journey and exploration not ours.

Trim it down

When running an art group with seniors living with memory impairment, it is crucial to keep the group small.  Intially, it may seem unrealistic to have only a small handful of people in an art group…(especially with those demands and expectations!)  However,  we are talking about people who are living with Alzheimer’s…they deserve to gain from the creative experience!

Having too many people in a group will decrease the focus and attention of the group members, decrease the intimacy of the interaction between participants and will have the facilitator going from person to person without actually being present to hear the stories that are shared through the artistic process.

But, we need to be very clear about what our motives are and art may not be the best intervention at this point.

Music, sensory stimulation, TLC, pet therapy, aroma therapy, story telling/reminiscing and laughter are some of the wonderful interventions for the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Wishing much peace, light & creativity to you and the seniors in your life.


Please feel free to share your thoughts or to contact me for more information at

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