Alzheimer’s patients benefit from art, creative expression

by Kristine Berey

When a loved one is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, it is hard to feel hopeful and not let the sense of loss take over.

In her coming lecture See Me, Hear Me and Listen at the Alzheimer Groupe’s Education Conference, gerontologist Pamela Atwood will describe techniques that will help caregivers tap into patients’ talents and abilities.

Communication is the greatest challenge in caring for a person with dementia, but it is not impossible, Atwood says.

“Fresh ways of connecting with people are easiest through the arts. We may not know a specific word we are looking for but can express emotion.”

Atwood described an approach inspired by the Montessori method that is used successfully with dementia patients.

“It uses familiar things from the environment to do familiar activities. For example, instead of talking about having a meal, a patient would be invited to help make a meal and in the process literally go through the motions.

“When you use the same muscle patterns (as a familiar activity), that is when you tap into different kinds of memory. My work is doing those kinds of things through arts.”

Atwood says her approach is tailored to the individual.

Because she loves singing and is part of the Sweet Adelines, a female barbershop-singing group, she believes that should she get dementia, music would be the best way to connect with her.

“People’s communication abilities change over time. We as care providers feel that when there is a change, they have lost ability. What we are saying now is that we have to be more creative in tapping in other ways people communicate, such as body language, acting, poetry, painting and music.”

Atwood uses all forms of art to engage the patient.

“Mandala art encourages people to explore concepts in colour,” she says. She will use familiar objects retrieved from nature.

By engaging the senses, you tap into skills and memories that are “overlearned” in the brain and never forgotten, such as playing the piano or riding a bike.

Being engaged in an art project sometimes benefits the caregiver as much as the patient, Atwood says.

She describes an incident where a patient’s sister was visibly discouraged and withdrawn in caring for her ill sister.

After the two had collaborated on a piece of pottery, they were moved to sing a song together.

“The smile and love on the caregiving sister’s face was priceless,” Atwood says. Now the two participate in organized social activities, whereas before the sister assumed nothing she did would make a difference.

Atwood has learned some of her skills through working with her son, who has a sensory processing disorder. As well, she is a certified therapeutic laughter leader.

“What I think is funny you may find offensive, but we do therapeutic laughter exercises.”

Although these exercises begin with fake laughter, they lead to true, mirthful laughter, Atwood says.

Pamela Atwood will speak at the day-long Alzheimer Groupe’s Education Conference for Care Providers, on November 6. 7655 Décarie. 514-485-7233,


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