More facilities and caregivers are incorporating creative therapies, like art and music therapies, into their dementia care approaches. Facilities are finding that by using and appreciating music, sculpting clay, painting, and creatively expressing themselves in other ways, people with dementia are able to see measurable improvements in mood and behaviour.
But why are these therapies so valuable for dementia care? And how can we get the most out of them?
Creative therapies in a nutshell
The value of art and music therapies has been demonstrated in multiple scientific studies. Patients who undergo art therapy or music therapy (or both) tend to improve communication, improve mood, and mitigate some of the worst symptoms of dementia.
But why are they so valuable? What makes them work?
- Intellectual and creative stimulation. Participating in art and music requires you to use your brain in novel ways. Simultaneously, you’ll need to think creatively and abstractly, you’ll need to focus on the project at hand, you’ll need to control your fine motor skills, and may even need to hold a conversation at the same time. This provides an excellent opportunity for intellectual and creative stimulation.
- Communication potential. People with dementia sometimes struggle to communicate or convey what they’re thinking or feeling. But being able to express themselves in an abstract way, such as through art or music, could be exactly what they need.
- Nostalgia and connection. For many people with dementia, participating in art or music projects is a way of experiencing nostalgia and creating more valuable connections. For example, playing a song that this person loved in childhood could help them connect with their favourite childhood memories
- Engagement and satisfaction. Even if a person is somewhat disconnected from other activities they used to enjoy, they may still feel a sense of engagement and satisfaction when working on an art project or playing music.
Tips for using art and music therapies
These are some of the best ways to use art and music therapies in dementia care:
- Get professional guidance. Even if you’ve done significant independent research on the subject, it’s still better to trust the guidance of a professional in the art and music therapy space. Consider using a care facility that specializes in providing art and music therapy, or hiring a caregiver with a formal education in these areas.
- Focus on familiar mediums and applications. When possible, focus on mediums and applications that are familiar to the individual with dementia. Is there a favourite genre of music they’ve always loved? When did they grow up and what was the popular music back then? Did they have any affinities for specific mediums or styles of art?
- Be cautious with unsafe items. As with all forms of dementia care, it’s important to be cautious with potentially unsafe items. Don’t provide access to any sharp instruments, toxic paints, or any other materials that could pose a danger to the person using them.
- Minimise interruptions. Try to avoid interruptions during focused art and music time. If music is frequently interrupted by loud commercials, or if your painting activity is interrupted by outside influences, it could minimize a person’s engagement and undermine the value of the therapy itself.
- Reduce sensory overload. People with dementia often feel overwhelmed when they experience sensory overload, so try to keep your artistic and musical experiences manageable. Don’t overwhelm them with loud noises, bright colours, or multiple forms of sensory stimulation at once.
- Encourage active participation. Creative therapies are at their most valuable when the person experiencing them is actively participating. Make sure this person can actively participate in some way, even if it’s just clapping along to a song.
- Avoid condescending or demeaning activities. People with dementia sometimes exhibit childlike behaviours, but that doesn’t mean you should treat them like a child. It’s important to avoid condescending or demeaning activities and to continue treating each person like an adult. For example, you shouldn’t try to teach finger painting to an elderly person with dementia the same way you would teach it to a preschooler.
- Work conversation into the activity. Creative therapies become more powerful when they enable communication, so try to work conversation into the activity as much as you can. Ask lots of questions while participating in the activity, provided you are distracted from the activity; how does this make the person feel? Does it remind them of anything? Do they have any ideas for what to do next? Almost any kind of conversation could be valuable.
Art and music therapies have been a staple of dementia care for many years now, and these stimulating forms of engagement are only growing to be more popular. When utilised correctly, they have the potential to provide much more meaningful, engaging experiences to people with dementia and genuinely improve their quality of life.
David Radar did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.