CJE's Eye on Creativity

by Nicole Bruce

Creative Arts Therapy (CAT) is becoming increasingly recognized as a valuable component of quality dementia care. Research reveals that keeping our creative juices flowing provides immense benefit to our well-being and quality of life. 

Art therapy, which grew out of psychotherapy, is a mental health field that uses art viewing, art making and art appreciation to facilitate emotional processing, communication and community building. We are all creative, but the creativity of someone living with dementia may need to be drawn out by others professionally trained to foster it—through art, music, drama, dance, writing or other expressive forms. “There are probably as many different processes as there are people,” says Theresa Dewey, M.A.A.T., an art therapist at Lieberman Center, who works primarily with dementia patients. “It really is different from just arts and crafts because you’re bringing that therapeutic eye to the session. The point is not to just keep somebody occupied, which may be the objective of doing arts and crafts. The objective of CAT is person-centered, based on one’s therapeutic need and responding to that need through the arts.”

Research by the late Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., at George Washington University Center on Aging, found that brain plasticity is greater in older individuals and that this greater connectedness between the left and right hemispheres promotes creativity. “Studies have also shown that brain activity during art-making crosses over the corpus callosum, which is that divide between the two hemispheres. This means that both hemispheres are working in tandem while one is making art,” says Dewey.

The numerous benefits creativity brings to persons in all stages of dementia include positive emotional responses, reduced agitation, greater social engagement, change in cognitive processes, increased verbal fluency and mobility, greater physical strength and balance, improved mood and attention span, less stress (for caregivers and receivers alike) and an elevated quality of life. “Self-expression provides people with a sense of purpose—a big thing in a society where ‘who you are’ is so important,” notes Dewey. “Once a role no longer defines you, your identity is often ripped away from you. With Creative Arts Therapy, you’re able to give individuals a new purpose, such as messaging through a poem or a painting, or having meaningful, deep conversations about art in a group.”

Creative Arts Therapy is designed to heal and make one whole. “Music and the arts open a different avenue for reaching that emotional processing that conversation alone sometimes can’t,” says Dewey. “But even though it’s more about the process than the product, we elevate the product and honor the person’s  strengths.” The art-making process, looking at the product or even asking about it—all can bring a beautiful impulse out. Dewey continues, “It’s a wonderful feeling for me to see this interaction of the person with caregivers, it’s something so different from the mundane day-to-day.”

The creative process also helps people work through grief, anger and frustration about one’s declining cognitive functions. It becomes a satisfying way to communicate and enjoy oneself, and can help people adjust to a recent diagnosis or acclimate to new living environments, such as a progression to long-term care. “People living with dementia have a lot of different needs. Whatever it may be, we get to use the arts in a lot of different ways to meet those needs,” says Rebecca Froman, M.A., M.T.-B.C., Music Therapist at Lieberman Center. Creativity raises self-esteem and enables individuals to transcend the isolation they may be feeling, work through issues still troubling them and enjoy the pleasure and satisfaction of the process of creating.

“Although participants might not normally socialize with each other, there’s a lot of dialogue across the table that maybe wouldn’t normally occur,” says Dewey. “In fact, when working with a dementia group, one of the primary goals should be to facilitate socialization among the members.” The process of observing or creating art can leave a deep imprint in our memories. “Even if they don’t remember you or remember what they made in the moment, there is some familiarity about it. There is an attachment to coming to the same room and being with the same people week after week. I do believe that there is some sort of memory of that, whether it’s a motor memory of ‘I know what it feels like to paint like this’ or ‘I remember doing this movement to the music’ or recognizing an object,” says Dewey.

Music Therapy can also help stroke victims relearn how to communicate. In working with motor and speech rehabilitation and pain management needs, Froman tries to find ways to decrease agitation and anxiety, promote a sense of self and help clients express themselves. Music is an excellent tool for this. For example, if someone suffers a stroke or brain damage to the two main areas that are used to process speech in the brain’s left hemisphere, their ability to communicate can be affected. “Because music is processed globally, there isn’t just one music center in the brain. A music therapist can use this to their advantage in working with someone to re-train how to speak or communicate,” explains Froman.

People with dementia need to feel part of a caring community which values and respects them for who they are right now. “People aren’t done developing just because they enter a nursing home. We can help them advance in that process of finding new ways to continue learning and growing. In an intense time of loss, having things that are new is really important. They might think, ‘I can’t drive anymore’ or ‘I can’t cook anymore, but I’m a drummer now,’” says Froman.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.