Dementia robs many faculties from a person but luckily, artistic ability does not seem to be one of them according to the findings of a recent study. As the elderly start slipping into old age, creative expression just might be the key to unlock whatever mental illness keeps so inaccessible.
Using Art To Open The Mind
One of the early losses for the person battling with dementia is communication. Even though the person retains his or her previous fears or thoughts, the person’s ability to transmit these feelings and thoughts diminishes as the disease gets worse. St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto conducted a study that showed promising results for patients with dementia who have used their artistic ability to communicate both with hospital wait staff as well as with their families.
The study was published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences. It focused on a sculptor with international renown, Mary Hetch before she died in April 2013. Prior to her battle with dementia, her artistic abilities were undoubted but the most fascinating thing that doctors found was her ability to draw detailed portraits and sketches, from memory in the years that lead up to her death. All this was despite having a severe case of vascular dementia, an illness characterized by severe deterioration of thinking ability because of reduced blood flow to the brain. This illness is very similar to Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Luis Fornazzari who was the author of the study stated that art opens the mind. He is a neurological consultant in The Memory Clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital. He remarked that Mary was an outstanding example of how the artistic abilities are retained despite the brain degeneration and loss of the more mundane day-to-day memory functions.
Hetch was bound to a wheelchair because of her previous strokes. She had such an impaired cognitive ability that she could not reproduce the correct time in a simple drawing of a clock. She also could not name or recall common animals or any of the names that she was given.
Dr. Corinne Fischer who is the director of the Memory Clinic remarked that Mary’s case was the most exceptional in terms of the preservation of artistic skills in the history of the clinic. Fischer was also a co-author of the study. She also remarked that while other studies had focused on other types of dementia including frontal temporal lobe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Mary’s study involved a patient that had advanced vascular dementia.
Communicating What Words Cannot
In many hospitals that practice art therapy, cases similar to Hetch’s are many. Even though the art therapy has proven palliative benefits, doctors remain unaware of the reasons why creative expression has such deep effects.
A neurologist and dementia specialist in Alabama, Dr. Daniel Potts stated that art therapy provides many benefits for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients since it helps the person having problems communicating to bypass the language problems and express himself or herself in an alternate way.
Scientists still do not know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, which is the commonest form of dementia. It results from the deposits of amyloid proteins in the nerve cells of the brain. As the disease progresses these plaques spread through the cortexes thereby slowing down mental function and inhibiting key neurological processes associated with cognition and memory. In a way, art therapy seems to re-route the communication pathways away from the traditional means.
According to Dr. Potts, it seems that something in the production of art helps to bypass some of the problems of dementia and that music and art seem to draw from varied regions in the brain.
Even though these kinds of therapy are not a cure for the person’s dementia, they do offer significant rewards that the individual may not otherwise receive in such an impaired state. They come from the satisfaction of completion, personal accomplishments, and just the joy of the artistic process.
According to Dr. Potts, it gives the person a sense of accomplishment. The person might be losing his or her cognition but the art therapy provides a way to gain some satisfaction. It enables the individual to express his or her true self when it is impossible to using other methods.
In conclusion, this article has been a discussion about art therapy and the benefits it offers to patients. The examples provided here such as the case of Mary Hetch is a testimony of just how effective art therapy can be as a treatment for dementia. In addition, the insight from the doctors shows that there is something promising in the use of art therapy to treat dementia. If you know of any person that is suffering from dementia, art therapy should be something that you look into. It could just be the key to being able to communicate with the person again.