Art therapy shows results for Alzheimer’s patients

by Karen Mansfield
Staff Writer | www.observer-reporter.com

Frances Mele carefully arranged flower petals cut out of wallpaper onto a cream-colored sheet of art paper.

Rena Tatka, director of activities and Alzheimer’s program specialist at Southmont of Presbyterian SeniorCare in Washington, peeked over Frances’ shoulder and complimented her on how beautiful her Gustav Klimt-inspired collage was turning out.

“Would you like to add another petal?” asked Tatka.

“No,” said Frances, studying her work and then nodding her head, satisfied. “I like it just the way it is.”

On a recent Thursday, 11 residents at Southmont – some of them, like Frances, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other dementias – participated in the facility’s monthly Fine Art Miracles program.

Artist Julianne Eisel of Finleyville, one of the Fine Arts Miracles instructors, spent the beginning of the class showing the participants Klimt paintings and discussing the life and techniques of the Austrian-born painter. The comments were lively: “They should name that one ‘Hair,’” exclaimed one resident as she looked at a painting of a well-coiffed woman.

Fine Art Miracles, it turns out, is more than an art class: It’s an Alzheimer’s treatment.

No drugs yet exist that can prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, or effectively eliminate the agitation and stress that often accompany the disease.

But research and anecdotal evidence are showing that the creative arts – painting, music, dancing, visiting a museum – can have an impact on disease symptoms and improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients.

Kara Berringer, art therapist at Presbyterian SeniorCare’s Woodside Place, takes Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to the Carnegie Museum of Art once a month for the museum’s “In the Moment” program.

“In the Moment” is modeled after the Museum of Modern Arts’ “Meet Me at MoMA” program, in which docents engage Alzheimer’s patients in artwork.

“I swear, their moods are better, their eating is better, there’s not as much napping after we visit the museum,” said Berringer. “And their behaviors, which are typical of Alzheimer’s patients, are so much better afterwards.”

An “In the Moment” study by MoMA and New York University yielded similar results.

More and more, caregivers and Alzheimer’s professionals in Washington and Greene counties and throughout the country are using art to engage and connect with people with Alzheimer’s.

Experts believe that creative expression – especially for Alzheimer’s patients who lose the ability to communicate verbally – remains an important part of the human experience.

Art and music often integrate physical, emotional, cognitive and social functions, which are critical for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Any type of therapy that takes the emphasis off the spoken word is valuable. Even though they often need assistance, they can communicate through music and art,” said Gina Iuliucci, activities coordinator/MTBC (music therapist) at Southminster Place of Presbyterian SeniorCare, which also participates in Fine Art Miracles.

Dr. Kirk Erickson, a researcher for the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said creative arts programs are designed to be enjoyable for dementia patients, but he believes programs like Fine Art Miracles and “In the Moment” can have important clinical implications.

“I don’t think we know enough about this right now, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence and smaller studies demonstrating that people from all walks of life, including those with dementia, could benefit from music or art therapy, or listening to old tunes that they used to listen to and dance,” said Erickson, whose previous research has shown the importance of exercise as a way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. “Participating in art or music programs won’t cure Alzheimer’s, but if we have some improvements in cognitive or brain functions, we’ve gone a long way to perhaps delay symptoms and maybe improve some symptoms. If (the arts) have an influence on mood or quality of life or aspects of life satisfaction, that’s a very important outcome that gets overlooked in the research of dementia.”

The handful of Alzheimer’s medications including Exelon, Namenda and Aricept can slow some of the memory loss Alzheimer’s causes and make people more comfortable, but since researchers have not yet been able to identify what causes the disease, they can’t find a cure, said Dr. Oscar Lopez of the University of Pittsburgh’s ADRC.

So the challenge for caregivers is to provide opportunities that enhance people’s quality of life, instead of waiting around until more effective medications are found.

“I always say that everyone can do something,” said Eisel, who has led Fine Arts Miracles participants at many area facilities through pastel, charcoal, water color and mural projects. “They feel such a sense of accomplishment, and they compliment and encourage each other on their work, which is so rewarding to see.”

Ultimately, it’s not the final result of the artwork for the Alzheimer’s participants, or how well they sing that matters.

“A lot of times, depending on the severity of their Alzheimer’s, they don’t even remember they did the picture,” said Tatka. “But that’s OK. It’s the process that matters. It’s the time they spent doing it that’s meaningful.”

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Photo By: Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter