When Words Fail-Art Therapy and Alzheimer's

The exchange of information is most commonly accomplished using language but what happens when words start to fail? Those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia may find that as the disease progresses words become harder to recall.  Therefore, it’s important to note that the exchange of information can take place in many forms: song, symbols, actions and even art.

Art provides a different and unique way to communicate with others.  It does not rely on the ability to recall words or phrases, it pulls from a more creative part of the brain.  The ability to enjoy, view and create art is not something that can be taken away and can always be learned.

Art Therapy has a way of showing a person that their story is of value and interest to others and gives them a sense of purpose and a chance to add beauty to the world for others to enjoy. 

While completing an art project a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia may feel a sense of control that they have started to lose in other activities of daily living.  They no longer need to communicate with language which can sometimes lead to frustration and aggression, they can release the negative emotions as they communicate with images.

According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s research foundation, studies have shown that over time participants who took part in art classes showed improvement in physical abilities, become more social and calmer compared to residents taking part in other recreational activities. Other benefits include: a boost in self-esteem, increase focus and attention span, an outlet for emotions and activating of neurons improving brain function.  Art gives someone the opportunity for expression of inward feelings and thoughts but it can also lead to social settings and friendship. 

One of the more interesting benefits of Art Therapy is the ability to provide positive experiences and relations between care giver and resident.  The caregiver may get a glimpse of the person that they were before Alzheimer’s, it lets them know that the person is still there-even if they are not able to communicate in the same way they had in the past.

At Northbridge, we understand the importance of art and have incorporated it into one of our signature programs, Artists in Residence.  In this program residents experiment with different mediums including oil, acrylic painting, watercolor, charcoal, pottery, collage, woodworking and jewelry making.  Some of our residents arrive at the community with a background and vested interest in art but others discover an ability and passion in art that they never knew they had.  Our Artists in Residence program promotes socialization, relaxation, creativity and self-awareness.


One of our most recent Artists in Residence programs is Project Pollock which took place at one of our memory care communities, Avita of Stroudwater. Project Pollock was brought to the community by Sales Director, Lea Rust, who was inspired by watching soldiers struggling with PTSD experiment with a similar project. When beginning the program residents, family members and staff are asked to choose three emotions they feel towards or about Alzheimer’s Disease.  Those emotions are then translated to colors on the color wheel of emotion and those colors are put into balloons.  Once the participant has their three balloons ready they throw them against a blank white canvas to create a Pollock inspired piece.  More than a splatter painting, these pieces of art tell stories of anger, fear, sadness, happiness, peacefulness and serenity.  After splattering the colors over canvas, participants are able to talk about what they are feeling both in that moment and in general about Alzheimer’s. 

Learn more about life at Avita of Stroudwater Memory Care.

One family member, Lynn, has offered to share her firsthand experience participating in Project Pollock, “Lea told us to close our eyes and think of three emotions that we were feeling at that moment. All I could think of was anger, anger, and more anger.  Anger about what the disease was doing to my husband, anger about what the disease has taken from both of us, anger about being cheated of our retirement together, just plain anger.  Well, my emotions translated into 3 red paint bombs which I threw as hard as I could at the canvas as directed.  It looked like a blood bath on the white canvas but I really felt better after I had a chance to release those feelings.  As I listened to the other artists express their emotions and create their multi colored paintings, I realized that I shared many of their feelings but couldn’t express myself because the anger had taken over.  Sadness, jealousy, wistfulness, loneliness I felt all of this and more and it felt good to recognize these feelings.  Seeing these emotions splayed out on canvas made me realize that anger is just a cover for much deeper and more debilitating emotions.”

Lynn provides very personal insight on the benefits of Art Therapy and how it was able to assist her in finding the deeper emotions she didn’t realize she felt.  Others who participated in the program shared similar thoughts.  Alex Velez, Program Director at Avita, participated in the program as well and realized she choose emotions that she had not verbalized out loud before but needed to express. This program also provided a stress relief.  Throwing those balloons, as Lynn mentioned, “as hard as I could at the canvas” provided an outlet and a sense of relief through recognizing emotion and letting it out.  

Although most family members shared similar emotions of anger, sadness and fear, the residents who participated had different emotions to express.  Most of their colors were representing happier and more peaceful emotions. This is evident while watching resident, Judy in this video:

You can see that she is happy to be creating art and simply having fun. Residents and family members were able to experience a program that is, in the words of Lea, “playful, failure-free and like Alzheimer’s, none of us know what will happen next.”

Below are pictures of finished Project Pollock art pieces, for more pictures click here to look at Avita of Stroudwater’s Facebook page. 

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