Enhancing well-being with the creative arts

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." An insightful quote from artist Pablo Picasso, and a great reminder that each of us has the potential for artistic expression. There is no doubt that creativity is good for us at any age and especially as we age. Studies have shown that older adults who participate in creative activities have a better quality of life and maintain independence more easily.

Renowned geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen conducted "The Creativity and Aging Study". Participants in the controlled study consisted of 300 adults aged 65 years or older, with an average age of 80. The study was conducted over a three-year period and included two groups of participants - those who participated in artistic activities weekly and those who did not. The study revealed positive findings for the group that participated in weekly art activities. This group reported better physical health, fewer doctor visits, less medication use, fewer instances of falls, and less problems than the comparison group. Most importantly, participants in this group experienced less loneliness, higher morale and enhanced daily well-being.

Bruce L. Miller, M.D. Professor of Neurology at University of California, San Francisco and Clinical Director of Aging and Dementia, has also shed light on the importance of the creative arts for people living with dementia. His research acknowledges that creativity is often spared by the disease, and for some their creativity comes alive and is even enhanced.

How do you interest someone living with dementia in creative activities?

As care partners to someone touched by dementia, it is understandable that sometimes the focus is on what has been lost. A focus on what remains and exploring those strengths can enhance the person's mood and well-being. When we provide access to the creative arts, we often discover hidden talents and abilities.

The key to discovering what sparks creativity for your loved one is to offer the right activity in the right way. Take a moment to reflect on what your partner enjoyed in the past and what they enjoy now. Then choose a small creative project that will help them be successful. You may need to modify or downsize the project. Find a quiet place to relax, create and have fun.

So often people remark that they are not creative, saying things like: "I can't draw" or "I can't dance and sing anymore." Frequently these are the people who have the most fun. Every person has unique gifts and talents, and artistic expression can be quite powerful. If you feel you aren't creative, consider various forms of art: storytelling, drawing and painting, sculpting, music, dancing. Following are some creative ways to explore these different artistic mediums with your loved one.

Storytelling. Creating stories from old photographs and pictures is a wonderful individual or group activity. These stories can be shared verbally or in writing. You may be tickled by some of the stories you hear. For example, an old print of a young couple dancing in the rain was shared with a small group of people living with dementia. One woman said the couple were in love. A man said they just got married. Another woman gave the couple names and said they were so happy they didn't even notice it was raining. After creating the story, the group talked about being in love and each person shared memories of their wedding day. Just one picture can bring back a multitude of emotions and encourage creativity for a person living with dementia.

Drawing and painting. When people living with dementia can express their thoughts and emotions through art, a whole new world can open up. As words fail, a person can continue to communicate through their artwork.

Sculpting. Using clay to sculpt an animal or object stimulates the senses. Sensory stimulation often connects to distant memories as well as creating joy. Working with clay can also be a very calming and relaxing creative activity.

Music. Has the power to re-engage people touched by dementia. It also improves their ability to retrieve memories and create moments of peace and happiness. It is one of the best creative outlets, especially when it is music that speaks to our heart.

Dancing. Music and dance complement each other. Put on some well-loved music and watch the reactions of your partner. It's hard not to move to music we love whether it is gently swaying or tapping to the rhythm.

Creativity and the arts can open up new pathways of connecting with people living with dementia. It can improve our emotional well-being and help combat loneliness. It has the power to stimulate our brains and improve the quality of life for children, adults and seniors alike. As Albert Einstein said, "Creativity is contagious, pass it on."

Janice Downing is an Educational Specialist with Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska, Mat-Su. To learn more about creative art programs and classes, call 907-561-3313 or visit http://www.AlzAlaska.org.