Creating is a Window: Art Making with People Living with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

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I love windows. I always have. Especially old run down windows that have peeling paint and those old levers on the side. The ones where the glass has a rippled look and the view as we see it, is not crystal clear. The old glass, the old windows, those are the ones I like to paint on and give a new creative life to.

I see windows as a metaphor for the process of art making. I work specifically with senior citizens. I am an art therapist and I have made it my life and my passion to bring art and self expression to these most special people. I find art and the process of art making to be a very powerful means of story telling and creative expression. This is especially the case where words are hard to come by when people are living with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.

In this article, I will share how my path led me to work with seniors, how art and connection helps the aging soul, and give an example of a client of mine who is living with Alzheimer’s disease but is using art to reconnect to his family and even to himself.

Earlier in my career, I had worked and volunteered with other populations. I have worked in various settings with children and young adults. However, it was my experience of working with geriatric veterans with varying psychiatric diagnoses that guided me in to where I am now.

It wasn’t until several years into my work with seniors that I had a revelation. An true awareness of my role in the lives of seniors. One day I was running a “relaxation spa”. A program I designed to bring a sensory experience to those living with Alzheimer’s and the goal was simple: Pamper, touch, smell, relax and enjoy. I had candles (yep, back then we used real ones and it was lovely!), lavender scented oil, and tea served in beautiful china teacups. I was sitting across from a woman who was moderately impaired from this disease. She had her head down to her chest and her eyes closed. I gently washed her hands with a warm cloth and began rubbing scented lotion on her hands and arms. All of a sudden, from her relaxed state, she looks up in my eyes and said, “You know, God sent you to me.” After giving her a hug I had to excuse myself for a minute to fully take in what she said and gain composure. Her words were profound and something I never thought of until that moment.

Yes, I was in the place I needed to be for her and for me. It was a clear message. It was more than just a relaxing program. It was the connection to another human being in a personal and loving way.

We all have the ability to deeply connect with others. We have the power to bring life fulfillment to others and enhance quality of life.  This was my path and what I was meant to do.  Art therapy is my window of expression for myself and in my work with others.

It is my belief that art is good for the aging soul. I know I am not alone in this in belief . Dr. Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. was a world renowned pioneer in the field of geriatric psychiatry. He wrote books and conducted studies on this topic of creativity and the aging brain and the positive effects such as growing brain cells and improving general and mental health and social activity.

Also, I appreciate the work of Dr. John Zeisel co-founder of Artz: Artists for Alzheimer’s and author of the book “I’m Still Here” and founder the I’m Still Here Foundation. He states: “Alzheimer’s doesn’t take away memory, your memories are all in there. The part of the brain that’s damaged is the part that gives you access to memory. It’s as if you put the memories in the glove compartment and you lost the key and the art unlocked it.”

It is not only the art itself that is meaningful, but the art making process that is what I focus on with my clients. I often start my art groups with people shaking hands and acknowledging the person next to them and passing this greeting around the group until it comes back to me. I think offering a sense of warmth and community is so important to these people who often are less social not by choice but by circumstance of the illness.

I have seen the artistic process be a sense of community and connection between group members. I have seen it take on a very lively social role including conversations and reminiscing. I very often see group members encourage and praise each other and their creative accomplishments. There can be a lot of singing and laughter during an art session. There can be music or creating Art can be a quiet, calming and meditative experience. It can offer a way to express feelings that may be too difficult or perhaps impossible to express verbally.

Overcoming resistance to creating art is a common challenge when working with the elderly. It is clear that many people stopped creating at an early age. It is also not uncommon to hear stories of how creativity was squelched by a teacher or parent. The truth is, anyone can create art. Anyone with a desire and encouragement can do it! There are no rules in art and I make this point clear to the people I work with. Their creations are just that…their creations no right or wrong and no judgments. No artistic experience is needed to participate in art therapy.

However, in the case of “Harold” a 94 y/o gentleman, he did happen to be an accomplished artist. I was asked by Harold’s wife to come to their home each week and have an art session with Harold who is living with Alzheimer’s. Harold had lost interest and stopped creating the art that he once loved and decorates their lovely home. He is often agitated, resistant, and combined with his loss of desire to paint is what introduced me to Harold. So on my very first visit this is a drawing Harold made. He did not do it willingly, he did it I feel to pacify me so perhaps I would leave. He quickly worked with the pastels and when I asked him about his drawing he responded, “Looks fine if you are in kindergarten”. (See image below)

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His words and his image were so telling to me. He knew in his heart he was not able to paint as he once did. He was aware at that moment that things were different and he was not happy. I also found his subject interesting…A lone boat sailing in the distance towards the sunset. How alone he must feel. Art is there to tell his story.

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Since this time, Howard has painted several paintings. Each one focusing on a family dog and tells a story about them with a costume that he carefully selects for them depending on their personality. He also paints portraits of family members and presents them as gifts, lovingly framed by his wife.  Below is a picture of his Scottish terrier. He presents him as a Scottish King complete with tartan and medals. He puts much thought and deliberation into each detail. While he is still quiet and often defensive, it is clear that being an artist is who Harold is. His art and creative time are very fulfilling to his life and he has a true purpose.

This final painting was created almost a year after I first met Harold. He stated, “This painting is the most important one yet. It has to be right. It’s for the family.” This amazing painting was created in the memory of his oldest son who passed away from cancer. You can see the growth and reconnection to his former self, his love of art, and it’s powerful presence in his life. His art inspires his family as well as myself. There is no Alzheimer’s when he is with his art. He is who he genuinely is. Art is his voice. 

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I am grateful to be able to hear the countless stories and memories that are told through art. Working with seniors creatively is tapping into not just areas of their brains, but more importantly, to areas of their hearts. It is powerful, healing, fun and valuable beyond measure. It is the window to our lives and who we are…Maybe the panes aren’t always clear but they still have a view worth sharing.

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