Dementia and Creativity: Expressing What Words Can’t Say

In the battle with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD), the ability to communicate is often an early loss. Creative activities can help bridge the gap, opening new doors for self-expression, reducing frustration, and offering a sense of choice.

“Through art, music, and other creative outlets, individuals who struggle with communicating can circumvent language challenges and express themselves in a different way,” says Susan Mckinney, vice president of operations at Lifetime Wellness. The company provides person-centered wellness, life enrichment, and recreational programming to assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation, and memory care facilities throughout Texas and Oklahoma. “Day after day in memory care communities, we see how the power of creativity can touch hearts and change lives.”

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Making Meaning Through Art    

Research has found that for people living with ADRD, art is often expressed at a much higher level than other activities. People engaged in artistic activities before a dementia diagnosis may hold on to these abilities in a way that withstands cognitive decline.

“Artistic expression provides a sense of achievement,” McKinney says. “Cognition may be diminishing, but with art, memory care residents can have a defined task, create something uniquely their own, and shine the light within.”

Artistic activities are wide-ranging, from painting and sculpting to writing, where a facilitator invites participants to offer a word or description and compiles thoughts on a dry-erase board. All resident contributions are woven together to create a shared story.

Cooking is another way to create. Residents are engaged in assembling simple meals or snacks, from tomato and ricotta toast to fruit and yogurt parfaits. “This activity provides tactile stimulation and social engagement – along with a sense of pride in making an edible creation,” McKinney notes.

To complement its memory care programs, Lifetime Wellness partners with the Alzheimer’s Association, Dallas & Northeast Texas Chapter. This group offers “Memories in the Making™,” through which participants – most of whom have no previous art experience – create imaginative watercolor paintings.

“The painting process is a colorful opportunity to engage socially and reminisce about meaningful life moments or personal interests,” McKinney says. “Participants share stories about their art, while a trained facilitator documents memories expressed. The program is designed to be fun but also serves as a way for families and staff to learn more about residents.”

Moving to the Music

 Another prime outlet for creative expression is music. “It’s a fundamental part of the human experience,” says Tiffany Wyndham, MA, MT-BC, a board-certified music therapist and CEO of Music Therapy Solutions. Her company provides music therapy to several senior living communities served by Lifetime Wellness. “For people living with dementia, music reaches different parts of the brain and often activates engagement and an emotional response. We’ve seen many cases where disengaged persons with dementia tap their feet or even join in singing when they hear a familiar tune.”

Activities may include playing instruments, such as light hand percussion, drums, and tone chimes; engaging through live or recorded music, and moving to the pulse of the music –from clapping and foot-tapping to gentle arm movements and chair dancing. Moving to music has been found to improve circulation and body/posture awareness, increase alertness and eye contact, and provide cognitive stimulation.

As in story writing activities, residents may also participate in group songwriting. For example, a recent session focused on taking a known melody – “My Wild Irish Rose” – and inviting the group to create a song about St. Patrick’s Day. Together, they composed their own unique creation and then sang it as a group. “Group singing not only stimulates memory,” Wyndham says. “It creates a sense of bonding with others that can combat isolation and depression.”

Matching Resident Needs With Creative Activities

At Lifetime Wellness partner communities, staff get to know residents and what matters to them by talking with family members or observing their reaction to different approaches. Together, they choose activities the resident has responded well to.

“It’s important to find creative activities that are meaningful to each individual,” McKinney says. “Often, the meaning is tied to a past hobby or interest, so what resonates with one person might not with another.

“While creative activities cannot cure dementia, they can instill a sense of personal accomplishment, improve quality of life, and open new channels of communication with loved ones through the joy of the creative process.”